“Did You Say Mama?” Five-Year-Old with Nonverbal Autism Surprises Parents

Her life changing moment - hearing her daughter call her 'mama' for the very first time.

“Did You Say Mama?” Five-Year-Old with Nonverbal Autism Surprises Parents

Photo: Briana Blankenship/

Around 30% of individuals on the autism spectrum use only a few words or do not speak at all. These individuals are described as having nonverbal autism and 5-year-old Taylor Blakenship from Athens, Alabama is one of them.

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In the early days, Taylor was a happy and loving baby. She progressed rather quickly and actually started walking at the age of 10 months. However, at the age of 2, Taylor’s parents, Briana and Jason Blakenship, grew concerned that their daughter still had not developed speech. “She would hum, jabber, and squeal but she wouldn’t mimic sounds and she wouldn’t try to form words. Our attempts of teaching her sign language were met with frustration meltdowns or complete disinterest from Taylor” wrote Briana. After speaking with a doctor, she and her husband were assured that all children have their own timeline and that Taylor’s timeline was simply different.

At the age of 3, Briana and Jason made the decision to put Taylor in speech therapy. “Her pediatrician still didn’t seem concerned that she wasn’t speaking yet but agreed that she should be in speech therapy. Her dad and I kept pointing to things ‘normal’ she did that would reinforce the idea she didn’t have autism” wrote Briana.

Finally, after months of evaluations, Taylor’s parents were forced to confront the fact that their daughter had autism. “We love her so much and feared for her future in this often mean world with the keyboard warriors and the bullies we hear so much about” wrote Briana.

It may be one, small word—but it feels like a big win 

At the age of 4, Taylor began preschool, alongside speech therapy and occupational therapy. “Last year we were able to get her a communication device, which is an iPad that is locked in a program called LAMP, and she started the process of communication. We are still working hard to get her to express her wants and needs clearly through the device” said Briana.

She and her husband had, more or less, accepted the fact that they would never hear Taylor’s voice. “So many people take for granted that their kids talk to them, or they talk them to death. They’re tired of hearing ‘Mama’ 30 times a day. They don’t realize that there are parents like us that literally dream that their kids are going to do that. That they’re going to wake up and their kid is going to be asking them like for juice, or anything” said Briana.

But one night, while grabbing her daughter dinner before gymnastics class, Briana heard Taylor say her first word – Mama. “We rarely eat fast food so she recognized that she was about to get her coveted french fries and started getting excited and giggling in the back seat. That’s when I heard her say it” said Briana. She immediately grabbed her phone and started recording the emotional moment, cheering her daughter on. “I’m pretty sure I held up the drive thru line but there was no way I wasn’t getting proof of this. I can’t explain how unbelievably grateful and ecstatic I am right now” wrote Briana.

Once the proud mother stopped recording, it hit her what had just happened and she broke down in tears. Briana pulled over and called her husband and her mother to tell them about Taylor’s precious milestone. However, seeing as how she was in a hurry to take her daughter to gymnastics, she did not have time to call anyone else. So, she decided to post the video on Facebook, tagging other family members.

Since the video has been posted, it has gone viral with over 296,000 views and counting. “We have had so many messages from people that we are giving them hope for their loved ones, or that we are making them feel less alone in the daily battles of parenting a nonverbal child” said Briana.

According to Taylor’s family, the major benefit to sharing her story is bringing all forms of autism into the light on a good and realistic viewpoint. “Hopefully with all the attention the video is getting we can encourage more people to educate themselves on autism. With understanding comes acceptance and that’s all we can ask for” said Briana.

Finding his or her unique “voice”

Although the term ‘nonverbal autism’ is used, there is no such diagnosis as ‘nonverbal autism’. This is because there is no fine line between verbal and nonverbal individuals with autism. For instance:

  • Some individuals with nonverbal autism develop the ability to use a few words in a proper manner, but remain unable to carry out any sort of meaningful conversation.
  • Some individuals with ‘nonverbal’ autism have the ability to speak, but they lack the ability to use language in a proper manner. These individuals may imitate what they have been taught by speech therapists or what they have heard on the television. Instead of using their ability to speak as a way to communicate ideas or desires, they use it as a strategy for self-soothing.
  • A few individuals with nonverbal autism do not have the ability to speak effectively, but they are able to communicate via typed or written language. Examples include sign language, picture cards, and digital communication devices.

While each individual with autism is unique, here are a few strategies that may help to promote language development in children and adolescents who are nonverbal:

  • Provide enjoyable opportunities for you and them to communicate by encouraging play and social interaction.
  • Mimic their sounds and play behaviors (so long as it is a positive behavior) to encourage more vocalizing and social interaction.
  • Focus on nonverbal communication, such as gestures and eye contact, as a way to build a foundation for language.
  • Follow their interests and engage with them through play and accompanying vocabulary.
  • Simplify your language to make it easier for them to mimic your speech.
  • Leave space for them to talk by watching for any sound or body movement and responding appropriately.

Nonverbal autism is poorly understood, as little remains known about the thought process of individuals who do not speak. Nevertheless, research is ongoing and new methods are opening doors of communication and understanding. Speech therapists, assistive devices, and visual supports are merely some of the tools and services available to foster speech development in individuals with nonverbal autism. Continual support is just as important.