10 Ways to Understand and Communicate with a Nonverbal Child

  • Shanti Kurada, MS, MBA

    Children on the spectrum may be non-verbal for a variety of reasons that are not fully understood. They may have childhood apraxia, a condition that causes difficulty with making sounds, syllables, and words. They may be pre-verbal and just beginning to make partial imitations of words. They may be minimally verbal, i.e., they may be using single words and phrases to express their basic needs but unable to express their thoughts and feelings. Some of them may be moderately verbal but rarely use their words unless they have to. Also many children with autism become much less verbal in stressful, anxiety-inducing situations. And some children are able to express complex thoughts using assistive technology. No matter where your child is on the path to language, remember that language is all about communication. Your child needs you to understand him as a person – this will facilitate more communication and more communication strengthens the parent child bond. Here are some ways in which you can know and help your child more.

    1. Develop a general understanding of the child through observation.

    What makes him happy? What makes him uncomfortable? How does he handle transitions and changes to routine? How is he around new people? Remember, children with autism (just like the rest of the population) are unique individuals. They have different personalities. Beneath the fog of autism, there is a person with specific qualities – someone who is sensitive or someone who loves adventure, someone who is playful/sharing or someone who is reserved/cautious. Get to know who your child is.

    2. Make notes on specific preferences and aversions.

    How does he show happiness? (Arm flapping, smiling, jumping?) When he is upset, what is his reaction time? Does he start whining and then progress to crying? Or does he go into a full-blown tantrum without warning? What foods does he like? What sensory experiences does he enjoy? Does he have any specific fears? (fear of darkness, fear of loud noises, fear of crowds?) How does he deal with conflict? (Does he avoid it, if so how?) Is he afraid of failure? Does he love praise or shy away from it? Does he prefer the company of specific people? If so, what qualities do these people possess? (they could be using softer voices, maybe less judgmental, good listeners, more open to differences).

    3. Develop strategies and supports for expected challenges.

    If he has a shorter school day, have activities in place for the afternoon. If you are going to a friend’s house for lunch, make sure there is something on the menu for him to choose from. Since your child cannot convey his needs to you explicitly (sometimes even verbal children on the spectrum have difficulty anticipating and articulating their needs), you must do this for him.

    4. Let the child initiate.

    Make his favorite meal and wait before you serve it to him. Let him indicate in some way that he would like to eat. If he is struggling with his sweater or his shoes, wait a moment before you rush in to help him. Let him indicate with a facial expression, pointing, or hand leading that he needs help. Then say, “Oh you need help taking off your sweater! Here you go.” Place desirable items (toys, food) within view, but out of reach, so your child will come to you for help to access them. If his ball rolls under the bed, wait before you get it for him. Let him ask you in some way. Pretend not to understand until he tries hard to give you the message. Then you can get a broom and reach for the ball but pretend to fail. Again, let him initiate. Allow him to “help you” get the ball from under the bed.

    5. Use modeling to demonstrate communication.

    When he indicates that he wants to eat by trying to smell the food, say, “Mmm, smells delicious, doesn’t it!” If he tries to touch the food, stop him and say, “Hungry? Let’s go and get a plate.”

    6. Use simple words and short phrases, whenever possible.

    If your child indicates something about the light, you could ask, “Light on?” instead of “Would you like me to turn the light on?”

    7. Reward any attempt at communication with praise.

    When your child shows you a ball that is out of reach by pointing or bringing you toward it, reward his attempt at communication by saying, “Oh you want the ball! Thank you for showing me what you want!”

    8. Give words to the child’s feelings and emotions.

    If your child is whining in a doctor’s office, you could say, “It’s not much fun being here, I know. Doctor just wants to make sure you’re ok.” When he starts arm flapping at the sight of a balloon, say, “You love balloons!!” or “A bright red balloon! Yeah!!” When he’s jumping on the trampoline, say, “Jumping is so fun!” and if possible, join in this activity.

    9. When your child is in distress, validate feelings with a silent hug.

    If your child is crying because he is not being given more cookies, you could say, “Cookies are all done.” Pause until the message sinks in. If the child continues crying, you can offer a silent hug. It’s best not to use a lot of words when the child is in distress. This conveys to the child that you understand his feelings but will stand firm on your decision.

    If your child is crying and you are unable to establish a cause, tell him to show you what he wants. Saying “show me” and giving him your hand to lead you takes practice and patience, but eventually, your child will start showing you what he needs.

    10. Play nonverbal games to feel connected.

    Playing peek-a-boo with exaggerated expressions, playing a game of tickles with puppets are ways to stay connected with your non-verbal child. Another way to connect with your non-verbal child is to share in his favorite sensory experiences – jumping together, playing with bubbles and shaving cream, swinging next to each other, going on the roller coaster together, playing with water guns.   You can also watch movies together or go for a walk in the neighborhood.

    Joining in your child’s world helps him open up to you more. It helps build trust and allows him to see you as a person he can go to with a problem.   It encourages his attempts at communication and allows you to enjoy your child right here, right now.


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