An appreciation for nonverbal communication

By Jenna Ebener

Have you ever noticed how many fiction movies seem to have a nonhuman sidekick? Think of R2-D2 in Star Wars, Grogu (“Baby Yoda”) in Mandalorian, minions in Despicable Me, Abu and Rajah in Aladdin, Heihei in Moana, and even the bottom half of the dad in Onward. These characters range from animals to unknown specimens. One common trait many of these characters share is being entirely or mostly nonverbal. They do not have any or many words, yet we often fall in love with their ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings expressively. R2-D2’s adorable beeps, Grogu’s soulful eyes, and the minions’ hysterical chatter and body language make it easy to become attached to these characters who are often not the focus of the movie.

I think we can learn so much from these characters. We learn how verbal communication is a small fraction of expressive communication. We pay attention to the characters’ facial expressions, body language and sounds to determine what they are thinking without them having to tell us. I think we also learn to have more patience with and compassion towards these characters.

For example, Heihei from Moana needs constant repetition of directions and supervision to keep him from falling into the ocean. While some of the other characters express general frustration, they focus on keeping Heihei safe and never blame him for being who he is. Another example is the dad in Onward. His sons are trying to bring him back to life, but a failed spell brings back only the lower half of his body. He cannot see or hear anything going on around him. His sons never question their dad’s lack of senses and instead focus on the sense he does have — touch — to guide him safely.

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I have seen parallels of this patience in myself. All of the students I work with are mostly or entirely nonverbal communicators. I have often reflected on why God has so clearly drawn me towards this incredible population. One of the reasons is because I feel less pressure about getting my words right. I can talk to them without the social pressure of saying the right thing or having to maintain a conversation. I can simply tell them what is going on around them but, more importantly, show them with my body language and actions that they are in a safe place. Another reason is because their disability is not their fault. The first day of school, I spent four hours in the 95-degree sun with a student who was terrified to get out of the car after rarely leaving his house for a year and a half. I have been bitten, spit at, head-butted and hit numerous times in the last week alone. As intense as those situations can get, they do not weigh heavily on me. I know these behaviors are pleas for help. These beautiful students are trying to tell me what they need in the only way they currently know how.

As incredible as my patience is with students who are nonverbal, I know it might not be the same in a typical school. My patience can often run thin with “typical” people, especially with family. Part of it might be because I know they have the capability to communicate more effectively than they are demonstrating. Other times, I am fatigued from being “on” so much during the school day. While you might not be around children who are nonverbal, babies are another great example of showing our natural instinct to protect and comfort those who cannot speak for themselves.

In what situations is your patience higher or lower? Now imagine how wonderfully compassionate our world would be if we looked at each person with the patience and love we have when we watch our favorite nonverbal characters in movies. “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8).

(Jenna Ebener, a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with a combination of medical, cognitive and behavior disabilities. She relies on God every day to aid her on this wonderful, yet intense journey.)


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