Image by kool_skatkat via FlickrOne of the things people always ask me when they learn that I work with people who don't use speech to communicate is this: "Yes, but, how much do they really understand?"
And I always respond in the same way: "Just because someone can tell me verbally that they understand what I'm saying doesn't mean that they do."
My policy (if in fact one can call it a "policy") has always been to treat people as if they're understanding me. I figure it's the most respectful approach. And I'd way rather err on the side of presuming competence than insult someone by assuming incompetence.
Usually, for me anyway, the more salient issue is whether or not I understand what the people I call "my clients" are trying to say to me.
Last week, for instance, I could clearly see that B was trying to communicate something to me. He wasn't doing it in a particularly effective way, but he was clearly trying very hard and being quite patient. He'd stand up, repeating his action in almost exactly the same way each time, and then he'd pause, waiting for me to miraculously get it.
Well, really, I couldn't. He wasn't giving me enough information.
It was obvious that B perceived my attempts to hear him, because when I said to him, "I'm not understanding you" he'd sigh, and he'd try again.
I encouraged him: "Use the music to tell me."
And he picked up and tossed the instruments on to the floor, retrieving them and throwing them again. Over and over.
After, I swear, ten or twelve times of making this effort with no hope of my figuring out what he was trying to say, we just sat there together.
Neither one of us could fix this.
So we sat. In silence. And we felt fully how frustrating it is to not understand. To not be understood. To not know. And to not be known.
I wondered, as I sat with him, if what he really needed me to understand is that this is his experience of silence.