10 Tips To Communicate With Your Nonverbal Child With Autism

Woman and baby girl reading on bed

There is a well-known quote that speaks to the fact that just because a child cannot physically speak, it does not mean that they do not have anything to say. This is SO true. As a pediatric speech language pathologist, specializing in working with children and families living with autism, I have seen many children that are nonverbal become very successful communicators.

But how, you wonder? If they cannot speak, how do they communicate? How do I teach my child to communicate? GREAT questions!

Here are 10 tips to help you get started:

  1. Do not underestimate your child. Just because your child cannot speak, doesn’t mean they do not have anything to say and it certainly doesn’t mean they have limited understanding. Expect more and they may surprise you!
  2. IQ is just a number. IQ is hard to measure when your child is given a test that heavily relies on verbal responses and social norms (as many of the popular intelligence tests do). It is NOT the best measure of intelligence for many children with autism. It is very challenging to gauge intelligence with standardized tests in this population so keep this in mind!
  3. Use pictures. In the beginning as you are starting to work with your child, begin with pictures. Start with pictures of your child’s favorite toys, foods, items they often request/need on a daily basis. You can go online and print off pictures from google images or take pictures of the actual items to print off. There is no “right” size, just make sure it is large enough for your child to grasp (consider their ability to pick items up in deciding what size to make the pictures).
  4. Use American Sign Language (ASL). ASL can be a successful means of communicating with your nonverbal child. They may be successful with their hands and this can give them a language they are fluent in. If nothing else, learning even just a handful of signs can help them get basic needs met. For example, teaching words like more, open, want, yes/no, and me to name a few, is a great place to start. There is a great free site that I use myself at aslpro.com with videos for each word you want to sign. Check it out!
  5. Gain your child’s attention first. Before communicating with your child, gain their attention. It can be hard for them to make eye contact but put a sticker on your nose or point to your nose and ask them to look at your nose to help direct their attention.
  6. Do not expect direct eye contact. Some children on the spectrum CAN make eye contact, but many cannot comfortably do this. Temple Grandin explained that it is physically painful for her to look someone in the eyes. She also explained that it takes away from her resources needed to think, in order to solve a problem or answer a question. In my opinion it is more important to allow a child to use all resources necessary to think, rather than pull from those resources to make eye contact (which may very well be uncomfortable for them).
  7. Give two choices, visually. You can present two choices using pictures cards and ask, “Do you want _____ or ____?” OR you can use your hands (which I do often!) where you show one hand for one option and the other hand for the second option and have your child tap the desired hand to make their selection.
  8. Use a communication device or app. There are various communication devices and apps available these days. If you google “communication apps for special needs” you will find lists of available, current apps. Many have free “lite” versions so you can give it a trial before investing in the app. If you prefer to go with another communication device, find out if your child is using any at school and/or if your child’s school team and/or private therapists can recommend a communication device and help you get that process started.
  9. Use your child’s obsession/interest. Many children have a favorite toy or obsession (e.g., trains). Use this to your advantage. Get down on your child’s level (e.g., the floor) and interact in play with them using their favorite toy. This can lead to a lot of communication (even if they are trying to climb over you if you are in the way or protesting so that you leave them alone to play).
  10. Use a combination of social stories and puppets to model communication and social interactions. You can create your own stories that show how to address particular social situations, but always pair the written story with pictures and act it out with puppets. Most of the children I work with absolutely LOVE the puppets and find them hilarious!

I will end with one additional bonus tip: ALL behavior is communication. If you look at what your child is doing as a means of always trying to communicate with you, you will start to notice patterns and have a better idea of what your child’s behavior means. Of course not everything is communication, but much of it is! So treat it this way and you will be surprised by how often your child may actually already be communicating.

To you and your communicating child!
With Love,

Hallie Bulkin