Parent’s Guide: Communicating With Nonverbal Children

African little girl using sign language communicates with mom
A deaf child and her mother sitting on couch using visual-manual gestures enjoy communication at home. | Photo: Getty Images


Trying to communicate with a nonverbal child who has been diagnosed with autism can be stressful and discouraging. Remember that your child is not trying to act out or give you a hard time but is instead having a hard time and doesn’t know how to convey that to you. Understanding your child’s perspective is key to staying calm, positive and helping your child communicate and progress. When a child breaks down, he or she is entirely overwhelmed. The best response is a sense of calm to help diffuse the meltdown and restore the child’s sense of control.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy and speech therapy are highly successful with guiding nonverbal children to communicate. The earlier the intervention, the better the results. It is never too late for a child to learn some type of vocalization. Therapy can also teach alternative communication means such as a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) or other augmented communication devices (iPads).

Will all nonverbal children eventually speak? Not all nonverbal children will talk audibly the way most would consider speaking, but they can absolutely communicate, and many will speak. Be encouraged because therapy can guide your child toward verbal communication. For best results, a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) should assess your child and determine a course of action. Once evaluated, your therapist will meet with you to review a plan and set goals for your child. Evaluations should continue throughout the process and new goals be set for your child. Proven ABA therapies can significantly benefit children who are nonverbal or minimally vocal.

African American father with toddler son playing with wooden constructor
A father plays with his toddler son using colorful wooden constructor. | Photo: Getty Images

Consider these tips if you’re a parent going through this journey:

• Acknowledge: Remember to acknowledge what your child knows and how he or she communicates. The goal is to help your child become verbal and recognize when he or she attempts to communicate by other means such as pointing or grunting. You can use these moments to expand on this ability.

• Imitation: Imitating your motor movements, such as pressing a button on a toy, is a good indication that your child has the potential to imitate speech. Speech is also a motor movement. This process takes time and patience.

• Repetition: As with many forms of therapy, repetition is your partner. Learning and processing take time, and repetition is key to unlocking the door to possibilities.

• Patience: The most challenging part of this journey is sitting, waiting, watching and observing. The learning process is a marathon and not a sprint. Watch behaviors and ways your child communicates. Progress could be a behavior or an eye movement being used to communicate.

• Visual cues: Try to use visual and voice cues. Point to a chair if you ask your child to sit in it. Your child may not be able to process verbal cues but can address the visual cues.

• Choice-making is communicating: Hold up a choice of objects, then wait to see if your child points or looks at a particular item. If he or she signals in any way, then your child is making a choice. Remember to meet your child where he or she is and rejoice in each ounce of progress along the way.

• Assistance does not equal defeat: Sign language, PECS or other augmented communication devices do not inhibit speech production. They can help to facilitate speech.

Sharing challenges and tips with others in similar circumstances can be a lifeline on difficult days. Reach out to autism service providers and nonprofit organizations to connect with other parents in the Baltimore area or online groups.

Angela West, M.S., BCBA, LBA, founder and chief clinical officer of Behavioral Framework, is board-certified and licensed as a behavior analyst in Maryland and Virginia. With more than 15 years of mental health and ABA experience, Angela has diverse programming and behavior management knowledge. Angela has a long history of developing and expanding ABA programs in Maryland and Northern Virginia.


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