Jordyn Zimmerman recently graduated with her bachelors degree in education policy from Ohio University. Diagnosed as autistic, Jordyn did not have access to a communication system until 2014, at the age of 18 years old.
“I’m sorry... the iPad distracted me,” said the waitress after she dropped a plate and splashed her pitcher of water all over my lap.
This moment - and many others - have been solidified in the front of my mind for years now.
"Please do not judge someone based on how they formulate words".
I found my voice through the use of an alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) device almost seven years ago. For the longest time I’ve tried to decipher this, and other awkward situations, so that I can use them to teach others.
Yet, I should not have to.
At these times, the mantra for every autistic non-speaking and minimally-speaking person rings through my head. Communication is a basic human right - and the use of any type of communication support should not cause someone to have a beverage spilled on them.
So what does it look like when the world is inclusive of autistic people who use AAC?
"My voice mattered just as much as everyone else's"
Last summer, I did an internship in Washington D.C. I walked around with friends, went to my internship independently, met with congressional staff, and navigated plenty of shops with people who I had never met before then.
Regardless of the people in the room, my voice mattered just as much as everyone else's. Using AAC, I was held to the same high expectations. Because in a society-wide climate of inclusion where AAC is the norm, everyone should have the chance to accomplish big communication feats and everyone should be given the opportunity to fail.
So how do I think we can move forward?
Create a culture of acceptance
Ensuring that autistic people who use AAC simply exist in the same room is not inclusive.
We should all be able to ask questions, express our feelings, and have objections. How we do this should not matter but whether we are given the space and respect does. When society is not inclusive of autistics who use AAC, individuals miss out on a wide-range of experiences.
Acknowledge that speaking is not a reflection of intelligence.
In an inclusive world, non-speaking or minimally-speaking autistics would not lead to people being labelled as less than.
Unfortunately, there is no reliable way of testing the creative ways in which we learn and communicate. Please do not judge someone based on how they formulate words.
Pointing, spelling, and typing to communicate can be tedious tasks. When I type, I most often use one finger to spell words and only then do I go on to formulate sentences.
Our motor skills are not perfect and, at times, we may inadvertently spell a word incorrectly. Inclusion means not only accepting this but quietly waiting while we finish conveying our thoughts.
Be patient, but always expect that we can be effective communicators.
- See more: A psychiatric unit can aid my recovery, but only if my needs as an autistic person are accommodated
- See more: How retailers can make shops more accessible for autistic children
Understand that everyone wants to be heard
We all have a story and we all want to share our voice with the world.
The problem is that when others don’t give us access to devices or fail to acknowledge our words - we may not realise the power of them.
The increase of AAC in our schools and communities clearly represents a positive shift in the mindsets of people, but it is not enough. The truth is, for inclusion to work, society must embrace AAC just as I was welcomed in DC last summer.
At the end of the day, AAC is one of the most significant advancements for non-speaking and minimally-speaking autistics, allowing those of us who never had a voice to finally find ours.