Seven Ways to Communicate with Someone who Cannot Speak or Move
The following text appeared as a blog post at welovelaurin.org on 26 August 2014. The site chronicles the care of Laurin Huber by her friends and family, raiding awareness and funds. Laurin was a dancer who, in 1980, was involved in a serious automobile accident that left in her in a coma for one year and then in a condition similar to Locked-In Syndrome. Laurin died aged 56 on 10 May 2018. Lisa Kinsolving is Laurin’s sister-in-law and runs the website.
Maybe you’ve never been in a situation where you were with someone who couldn’t speak. Maybe you’ve avoided these situations because you felt awkward and didn’t know how to act. I first met Laurin while dating her brother Carey (now my husband) back in 2004. I admit that it was difficult as I struggled to think of clever things to say that wouldn’t offend her in any way. I was so busy self-editing that I usually pretty much clammed up.
So how do you get to know and carry on a relationship with a person who is completely non-verbal and can’t even move in order to communicate by gestures? This is far from a comprehensive list, but here are a few ways that have come to me over the past 10 years of knowing Laurin.
1. One-Way Conversation
Master the art of the one-way conversation. Shakespearean characters do it all the time, speaking at length in grand soliloquies. Your language need not be nearly such perfect poetry. Just think out loud. Share with her some of the things that have happened in your life since the last time you spoke to her.
If you need a little help getting started, just read to her. Laurin loves to be read to from the Bible, but you could also read other books, magazines (show her the pictures, too), letters, text messages and emails. You might also take her hand and pray with her.
You can talk to her on the phone, too. There is always a nurse nearby who can take the phone to Laurin and put it on speakerphone. Carey is quite good at this. I thought it was weird at first. Did she really get anything out of it? He would call Laurin while he was out shopping or something, describing everything he was seeing. She got a huge kick out of this!
Once you get started, you’ll find that you can get on a roll quite easily, since she won’t interrupt you to divert the conversation to some distracting rabbit trail. She will listen to anything you want to tell her. She just loves the company. And she’s absolutely the best at keeping secrets.
2. Eye Contact
If words fail you, just look her in the eye and smile. Watch her face for reactions when you talk to her. This is one way to communicate with Laurin where you’ll be on equal footing. In fact, Laurin may be better than most people are at communicating with their eyes, since that is by far the main way she can connect with people.
If you want to get her answering yes/no questions, she’s able to answer those through blinking her eyes. Just establish with her that you know the code: zero blinks for no, one blink for yes. (In Laurin’s case, she adds extra blinks for YES!!!) If she’s in the mood for this, you’ll be able to tell she’s into it because her blinks will be especially emphatic, and her eye contact will be like steel. And I mean those flashing baby blues will slice right through you!
This might be taken a step farther. I don’t know that it has been tried with Laurin, but she would need to be having an especially alert day to even attempt it. Some have had success with alphabet board blinking, though it is laborious for the blinker. The way this works is you show the person a paper with the alphabet arranged in four or five rows. Establish that you want them to spell out what they want to say to you. Then point to each row of letters and ask if the first letter of their message is in that row. Have them blink when you point to the correct row. Then point to each letter in that row and have them blink when you touch the correct letter. Write down each correct letter so you can figure out the message when you’re finished. You can see why I said “laborious.” That might be why no one’s tried it (that I know of) with Laurin yet.
3. Your Presence
Just being in the room with Laurin can be a way to connect with her. Often, small children seem to get this right away. My twin nephews were five years old when they first met Laurin. Her condition didn’t seem to inhibit them at all. They got close and touched her, talked to her, talked to each other, and just filled the room with light, joy and energy.
You do have to be a little delicate with this one, as there may be medical equipment such as catheters, feeding tubes, IVs, tracheostomy tubes, oxygen masks, etc. that you should be careful not to disturb. With Laurin, a gentle touch of the hand or arm, a stroke of the hair, or a kiss on the cheek or forehead seem to be welcome gestures of affection and friendship. Don’t overdo it, though. She’s not a lap dog.
5. Shared Experience
If the non-verbal person can be taken for a car ride, you could go on a little sightseeing drive together. If she has a wheelchair, take her out for a walk on a nice day. Point out birds, flowers and other interesting or beautiful things you see. Once, Laurin’s nurse bundled her up in warm blankets in her wheelchair and Carey and I took her to go see the Christmas light display in a nearby town square. You’d have thought she died and went to heaven. And speaking of heaven, Laurin loves to be taken to attend church services.
If you can’t take the person anywhere, then just enjoy together whatever you see outside the window. Make sure she has something to look at there. Plant a pretty garden. Set up bird feeders so she can watch the constant action of some colorful, feathered friends.
Watch a movie together. Laurin watches movies alone all the time. But you know how it is. Watching it WITH someone somehow elevates the experience. This is especially true for Laurin, as the only visitors she usually gets are medical personnel.
Another thing Laurin loves is to look at your vacation photos. This is a huge bonus, since most people would be yawning and looking at their watches by the time you hit the tenth photo of the Grand Canyon. As long as she’s not already sleepy, you have a willing audience in Laurin!
This is where your high school drama skills can come into play. Re-enact something that happened to you. Show her how something works. Trot out some of your dance moves. Sing her a song. I’ve sung to her spontaneously a few times, and it really moves her. She tears up and gets emotional (in a good way!). It seems to minister to her deeply.
Laurin has been blessed with a unique piece of technology known as an eye-gaze computer. There is great potential for communication here, but there’s a big learning curve. Laurin has had a few sessions with it, but she really needs someone who can spend some serious time working with her on it. Whenever she sees the computer, she gets so excited. I know she wants to learn. We’ve been letting her listen to Bible messages on her computer and she’s never more alert.
Laurin listens to a recorded message on her computer. I believe there is huge potential with this computer to allow Laurin a level of communication that she hasn’t enjoyed for several decades.
Just Do It
Don’t let your inhibitions get the better of you. Just because someone can’t talk to you, doesn’t mean they don’t require connection with people. We all need other people in our lives. Friendship is a deep human need built into us by our Creator. Laurin demonstrates that every time her friends come to visit her and her smile simply lights up the room.
Images and text courtesy of Lisa Kinsolving. You can read more about Laurin’s life at welovelaurin.org