My child is nonverbal, help!

As a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, your first thought may be: ‘My child is nonverbal help’ – after all, if your child cannot communicate with you how are you going to be able to understand their wants and needs?

As a parent, your instinct is telling you that you need to know when your child is hungry and what they would like to eat, or when they are upset and need some extra love and comforting. This can put pressure on people who may feel that they are not being the best parents they can, as they fear they will be unable to tell whether their child is cold or hungry, frightened or insecure. Any parent would understand that this would be a situation that would leave you feeling worried – after all, being a parent of a child with autism has challenges anyway, but if the child is nonverbal then these challenges are compounded.

In the past it was believed that if a child was diagnosed as being nonverbal after the age of 4, that they would never speak. However, a study in 2013 by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that this was simply not the case. The study was based on 500 children and the conclusion that they came to was that non-verbal children can potentially be taught to speak at any age, with some of the children who were studied learning how to communicate fluently as late as in their teenage years.

This means that if your child is diagnosed as being non-verbal then you don’t have to be resigned to the fact that you will be communicating by non-verbal methods forever. New breakthroughs in research have shown that you can use non-verbal methods of communication, such as app to talk, as a way to begin encouraging your child to start using words while you develop other effective strategies for figuring out what it is they want and need.

Having said all this, it is really important to remember that no two children who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum are the same. Therefore, a communication strategy that works well for one child may not work for another. However, there are some tried and tested strategies that parents can use to try and get through to a non-verbal child, and more importantly that may allow the child to be able to convey their wants and desires to their parents.


My Child Is Nonverbal, Help!


Here are six of the most used strategies which have been shown to be most effective in fostering communication with a non-verbal child:

#1 Don’t discount non-verbal communication

Many parents feel that the goal for their child is to be able to use language successfully, but actually many children can find ways to communicate effectively without the need for words. In fact, many of these non-verbal signals such as eye contact and hand gestures are some of the building blocks needed for successful communication anyway, and so it is important to encourage their development.

If your child is showing signs of nonverbal communication then you should do what you can to encourage this by exaggerating your own hand gestures and encouraging your child to copy you. When you want your child to pick up a book, for example, don’t just ask them but also point to it and nod ‘yes’ when they pick the right one.


#2 Play can be a learning opportunity too

Children love to play and this should always be encouraged, but play can also be a great opportunity to learn as well. Playing games with your child, especially games that involve sorting and matching are a great idea because they enable the child to work on their motor and visual skills as well as communication. Other activities that allow your children to use their hands, such as using playdough, will create opportunities for them to describe the physical sensation, perhaps using gestures at first and then words.

You can always encourage communication by getting musical as well. Whatever activity you are doing with your child make sure you get on their level, make eye contact and let your child see what you are doing so that they can learn from it.


#3 Use imitation

As we have touched upon above, imitation is a great way to learn – and it can go both ways. You can start off by imitating your child, how they play and the sounds they make, which will help to encourage them to do more of both. This can be as simple as building a block tower if that is what your child is doing, and then knocking it over when they do to.  All toyboxes contain items that give you lots of opportunity to engage in role playing games and games which encourage communication and imitation in a way that does not at first need words.

#4 Follow your child’s lead

Let you child take the lead, and allow their interest and pace to dictate what you are doing so that they do not lose focus. Following along with what they are doing and using words to describe it is a great way of encouraging your child to start connecting words with their chosen favourite activity. Make sure to choose words that your child can easily understand – using single words in the beginning to help your child to imitate and understand them.


#5 Use assistive devices

There are lots of assistive devices out there designed to help both children and adults who find it a struggle to communicate. These apps and devices are not meant to take the place of speech, but to be a foundation for communication. They are visual supports that help children to make requests and share thoughts by touching pictures which then produce word.


#6 Give your child some space

While you are working on communication with your child, it is important to keep in mind that they will not always respond fully or even at all. You need to fight the temptation to finish their sentences, or answer questions on their behalf and just give them space to answer, even if the answer is not forthcoming. Children who are on the autism spectrum need time and space to be able to think and to process things. Encourage them to do so by continually providing them with opportunities to respond even if they choose not to.

App2Vox is an augmented alternative communication (aac) app which is aimed at giving all non-verbal autistic children the chance to communicate.