How to help a non verbal child start to talk?

If you are a parent of a child who has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, then one of the biggest challenges you are likely to face is how to help your non verbal child start to talk as this will allow you to understand your child’s wants and needs more easily. Most parents want nothing more than to be able to know when their child is in need of attention or is hungry or thirsty. If your child is autistic then you may struggle to understand this, or whether they are scared and bewildered or amused with what is happening to them.

If you are unable to tell whether your child is happy or unhappy, hot or cold, or feeling insecure or frightened then you may fall into the trap of thinking that you are not being the best parent that you could be. For many parents this could feel scary and worrying, and can be further compounded if your child is non-verbal. It was long believed that if a child did not talk by the age of four, then they would never talk, but studies have shown that in fact this is not the case. Nonverbal children can be taught to speak later in life, though tools such as apps for children with special needs.



Again, it is important for us to reiterate that no two children with autism are the same and a strategy that works for one may not work for another. However, there are some tried and tested techniques that can be used to help non-verbal children to communicate better with their parents and other people around them:


Use Nonverbal Communication

Although getting their child to talk is the goal for many parents of nonverbal children, it can be equally effective to communicate with your children in a nonverbal way. In fact, many nonverbal communications are the building blocks for effective verbal communication, such as eye contact and hand gestures. So, it is important to encourage nonverbal communication as well as verbal communication as a precursor to speech. You can encourage your child’s nonverbal communication by making it easy for them to copy you by exaggerating your own hand gestures – however embarrassed you may feel. For example, you can hold out your arms or clap loudly – these are universally recognised gestures which children should be easily able to interpret.


Use Play and Social Interaction

Playing is a great way for children to learn and interact socially and so playing games that your children enjoy is a great option to help them work on communication, as well as visual and motor skills. You can do this by playing games which involve matching and sorting. Games that encourage your child to use their hands, such as making things with playdough, also encourages them to describe their experiences, through gestures at first and then through the use of words. It is interesting to note that the connection between physical sensations and being compelled to describe the feeling involved. You can also try singing or playing musical instruments – always making sure that your child is at eye level so they can see and hear you, and learn from watching you.


Imitation is Communication

Another strategy you could use is imitation – it works both ways and can be a form of conversation between you and your child. You can start by imitating your child, when they are playing or making sounds and encourage them to do the same. Imitation is as easy as it sounds, just copy what they do – if they put a brick on top of another you do the same. If they knock all of the bricks over, then you do the same. You can do this with any of the toys in their toybox, from action figures, balls, books, cars or even lego. All of these toys give you an opportunity to interact with your child in role playing which allows you to communicate your child in a way that doesn’t even need words.


Let Your Child Lead You

It is really important to let your child set the pace and take the lead. Allowing them to choose the topic in this way helps to ensure they do not lose focus. Follow along with whatever activity your child chooses to do and narrate what they are doing. For example, if your child is sorting shapes, say ‘rectangle’ when they hold up the shape and ‘in’ when they place the shape in the basket. By doing this you are allowing your child to focus on things they are interested in and encouraging them to connect their favourite activities with certain words. You may also want to choose simple words such as ‘take’ and ‘ball’ to start with making it easier for your child to understand and imitate. Then when your child starts to use these words you can add another word in, such as ‘take car’ or ‘roll ball.’  Keep on doing this and building more and more phrases until you are helping your child to convey full sentences.


Use Assistive Devices

There are many types of assistive devices and apps available which are aimed at helping children and adults with autism who are struggling to communicate – both those who are completely nonverbal and those who have some speach. These apps and devices are not designed to take the place of verbal communication, rather to assist the child and adult to communicate and help them learn more about communication as well. Visual supports are a great way to help children to make requests and share their thoughts by touching pictures which then produce words.


Give Your Child Some Space

Your child may not always respond to you in the way you want them to, or even at all. It is important to remember that this is OK. You may feel an urge to help them by completing their sentences, answering questions on their behalf when other people ask them things, or mouthing the responses to them that you would like them to say. However, children with autism will generally need a little time and space to be able to process things, and sometimes they may just not want to answer. It is therefore OK to give them space to answer in their own time and in their own way, even if the answer never comes! You can help them by reinforcing positive behaviour though, by watching them closely for any sound or movement when they are asked a question, and reacting quickly if you see any sort of response. This can act as a positive reinforcement for them and empower them to communicate more.

Helping your nonverbal child to communicate is not an easy task, but there are various things you can do to help them. There are many aac devices for autism available and App2Vox is the only app of this type which is produced in conjunction with Autism Together. If your child is nonverbal then maybe our app can help.