How to interact with a nonverbal autistic child

One of the most frustrating issues for parents and other family members of nonverbal or minimally verbal autistic children is how to communicate with a nonverbal autistic child. Children who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with language and can relate better to objects sometimes than they do people. This can often make it difficult for their parents and other family members to get to know them and feel close to them. Also, many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have tantrums and can engage in other destructive and unpopular behaviours as they find it so difficult to express their thoughts or needs.

There is good news though. Recent research has shown that even after the age of four many nonverbal children with autism can learn to develop language skills and communicate. Many parents opt for speech therapy for their autistic children, which is individualised for each child but based on a certain framework. This framework includes: establishing functional yet spontaneous communication, providing social instruction in various settings throughout the day, targeting of peer interactions, providing training and support rather than just minutes, and fine-tuning communication skills as other areas improve.


How To Communicate with A Nonverbal Autistic Child


There are certain things that can be done at home to support what the child is being taught during their speech therapy lessons, and to help your autistic child to develop their language skills. Of course, every child is different and you as a parent know your child best, so make sure to use the tips as a guide only and modify them to fit your situation.


#1 Make it a game

Research has shown that all children learn through playing, and this is especially true for children on the autism spectrum. You can imitate the noises your child makes when playing, and the actions they are undertaking in order to encourage interaction and vocalisation. You may feel silly copying your child’s actions but keep at it as it will encourage your child to copy you in return. You can sing songs, repeat nursery rhymes – anything you like to encourage your child to make noises and keep moving.


#2 Build on your child’s communication skills

Whenever you are playing with or communicating with your child, make sure you are on their level so they can make eye contact and can see the facial expressions you are making so that they can copy them. You should also try and narrate everything you and your child are doing together, so that you can start to model their language skills. For example, if your child is playing with a toy car you could say ‘car’ and then make the sound ‘vroom’ when they are pushing the car. Keep your language simple and descriptive so that it is easy for your child to pick up.

Once your child starts to talk during play make sure you respond promptly and in a positive way by repeating what your child says, and by adding an extra word. For example, if your child points to the toy and says ‘car’ hand your child the car and say ‘red car’ or ‘car drives’. Responding quickly like this and adding another word will not only reward your child’s effort but also demonstrate the power of communication and help to push their language skills further.


#3 Enter into your child’s world

Using play as a way to encourage your child to communicate is one way to get into your child’s world, but it isn’t the only way. Get to know your child’s preferred language style, their mannerisms, expressions and interests. Note where, when and how they attempt to communicate and use motivating items and people. For example, if they prefer to talk hidden under a blanket on their bed, encourage them to communicate more by sitting next to the bed or get under the blanket as well. Showing a willingness to enter their world, will encourage your child to try entering yours.


#4 Overemphasise your body language

Most people say you should emphasize your body language when with a non-verbal autistic child, but really it should be about over emphasizing them. If you look carefully at much of our normal everyday communication you can see that it is non-verbal, but sometimes we can be so focussed on the child’s inability to use language that they can forget about all of the other tools they have available. When communicating with your child, exaggerate your eye contact and gestures to match the language. This could include pointing to the item you are talking about, nodding or shaking your head when saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or clapping your hands to indicate excitement. Many parents have reported success in teaching their children simple terms such as ‘hungry’ and ‘thirsty’ using this technique.


#5 Use communication devices

There are a number of devices and apps for children with special needs out there on the market, from language apps that allow children to combine pictures, words and sounds that help children to build their vocabulary to AAC devices (Augmentative and Alternative Communication). Since many autistic children relate better to objects than people, these devices can help them to focus their communication efforts in a way that is non-threatening.


#6 Use visual clues

Visual clues are another form of non-verbal communication which are not aimed at replacing language, but rather helping it to take root and grow. Creating picture books with your child or sharing social stories with them can help to reinforce daily routines such as getting ready for bed, or help to get them prepared for big events. Spend time looking at pictures together and talk about what you see in each picture.

Any of these strategies that you use will always work best when used in conjunction with your child’s speech therapist who will also be able to also give you other strategies to use at home as well.

The most important point to remember is that communicating with a nonverbal child requires both a lot of patience and an all-round approach that combines both aided (such as the use of a text to speech app) and unaided communication. Don’t just use one method of communication and expect your child to conform to that way of communicating, instead pay careful attention to their preferred way of communicating and support them in that.