Nonverbal Emojis: How People Communicate When Words Fail

Emojis have actually always been a method of nonverbal communiction. The entire concept is rooted in communicating in a nonverbal fashion. Nowadays, there's an entire culture of people who use custom emojis to communicate when they're unable to type normally due to being neurodivergent. Let's talk about this and how it developed!

Nonverbal? The word "nonverbal" has a fairly simple definition:


ADJECTIVE: not involving or using words or speech:

"forms of nonverbal communication"

- but, let's talk about what being nonverbal is like for the people who experience it. First off, being nonverbal is an experience very common amongst neurodivergent people. That is, people who are mentally ill, have developmental disorders, or brain damage. Many autistics are nonverbal all of the time or lose their ability to be verbal when stressed, for example. And for some of us, that inability to communicate even spreads to typed words.

For me personally, it feels like a processing issue - When I'm stressed enough, I can no longer put sentences together, or it's just PAINFUL to do so because my brain is tired by what I'm experiencing. My senses are irritated raw, and it's just not a good idea to force myself to try to write or speak anyway.

In Philip Reyes' blog, he describes his experiences of being a nonverbal autistic person:

Let’s pretend you are like me. You can’t talk, but you have a well-functioning mind and can understand people. Imagine you answer everyone who says something to you, but only you can hear it. Others hear your voice saying things you don’t necessarily mean. They think that’s all you are capable of thinking. People see your repetitive flapping or tapping and they think it serves no purpose. They don’t understand that the minute you stop, the moment is flooded with lights that hum, loud sounds that echo, kids moving too fast for you to keep up with and people trying to engage with you. It is hard on me to put my stimming away, but I try.

People see your hyper movement. They prefer you sit quietly. It’s hard for me to feel my body in space, so I prefer to move because I can feel my body better.

In school, interesting subjects like math, science, social studies and language arts stimulate my thinking, ease my mind and teach me something about the world. I did not always feel this way. Many years of my life were spent in an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) school. I had to do my drills over and over until I was bored and frustrated with my teachers. Then I would have meltdowns. For me, ABA is not a solution. I experienced long hours meeting goals like pointing to flashcards and pointing to my own nose. I believe people need to be able to set their own goals. No person should be without a voice. I believe in teaching communication first. Meaningful communication means being able to say what I want to say. People must believe we are capable and that our minds are intact. My parents have been great. They support me by communicating to others about autism and me. They play. They make my life as normal as possible. - Phillip Reyes[1]

Like I said above, there's lots of situations that may make someone unable to communicate verbally - temporarily or permanently.

The internet is a place where anyone, no matter what barriers might prevent them from feeling accepted offline, can create or join communities. On forums, message boards, chat servers, blogs, etc - We are able to carve our own spaces online, and this often comes with taking advantage of features to add accessibility. It was probably inevitable that emojis on Discord became another method of alternative communication. The Development of Custom Emojis on Discord

The chatting application Discord is extremely popular, and gives every user the ability to add up to 50 custom emojis to their Discord servers. In a lot of cases this is used for memes related to the server's topic. Which is a lot of fun! I think Discord's open ability to add custom emojis was a great choice. They also recently expanded on this by giving each server 5 sticker slots, too! Stickers are essentially bigger emojis, being embedded images that you can also upload yourself.

I don't think it's possible to discover the first person who started crafting custom emojis for Discord users to use anymore, but I do know that the trend of handdrawing custom emojis definitely blew up online in 2019 with the popularity of cursed emojis after a tweet compiling several unique emojis went viral.[2]

After this time, a subsculture of Tumblr blogs dedicated to hand drawing custom emojis sprang up. And with this, emojis specifically made for nonverbal communication came as well - along with Discord servers to hold them! One of the most popular (and probably one who motivated many others) is Custom-Emojis, who started their blog in 2020[3]. On their Ko-Fi shop, there's a collection of all of the emojis for nonverbal communication they've made that you can download - Over 250 of them!
A screenshot of several emojis drawn by The Heretic System, owners of Custom-Emojis. A screenshot of several emojis drawn by The Heretic System, owners of Custom-Emojis.

Left/Below: A screenshot the images from the 2022 Emojis Superpack made by us. It shows multiple examples of emojis made with blue text.

Left/Above: A screenshot the images from the 2022 Emojis Superpack made by us. It shows multiple examples of emojis made with blue text.

We've also had a lot of fun designing nonverbal emojis, and ended up making over 500 this past year!

Freedom To Have A Voice on Discord

You could definitely even compare the alternative communication tool known as a "communication board" - a device that displays photos, symbols, or illustrations to help people with limited language express themselves - to Discord emojis that are letters and words. Communication boards are one type of augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) device, although they aren't always available for people who need them. This can be for a number of reasons - parents in denial their child needs that support, inability to pay for the right of device, etc. I personally find it fascinating to consider that if you're communciating through Discord, you can essentially use a digital communication board for free.

For us, who are part of a group with Dissociative Identity Disorder, we appreciate the advent of nonverbal emojis. They've been an absolute lifesaver when it comes to communication between alters who can't process other methods of speech. We're probably not alone in that.

There's an endless amount of people out there who need methods of communication other than verbal/text, and thankfully it does look like there will now be an endless amount of free emojis and servers out there to help them! It's incredibly exciting.

If you're personally in need, check out the different servers we run.

Citations [1] [2] [3]
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