How to Help Your Nonverbal Autistic Child Speak More

By sandra.caplesc…, 4 May, 2022
Autistic boy with noise-canceling headphones.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a broad spectrum of various neurodevelopmental disorders. Autism affects a person’s ability to socialize, communicate, behave, and develop. That’s why many autistic people have delays in communication and speech. While some children have minimal support needs, others need significant support, possibly all their life.

Unfortunately, some autistic people will not speak at all. Around 25 to 30 percent of children with autism are minimally verbal: they say fewer than 30 words. This is known as nonverbal autism.

Yet every autistic child is unique and has a particular set of challenges to overcome. Some children with autism spectrum learn to communicate more effectively through at-home speech therapy activities or other tools like Speech Buddies.

In this article, discover some techniques to help your nonverbal autistic child develop social skills and speak more.

What Is Nonverbal Autism?

Nonverbal autism has no official diagnosis since there is no clear line between verbal and nonverbal people with an autism spectrum disorder. For example, some nonverbal individuals develop the ability to use a few words but can’t carry a significant conversation.

Others can speak but can’t use language in a meaningful way. In fact, children might “echo” scripts from TV or expressions taught by a therapist, but they won’t use the words to express their desires and ideas.

What Causes Nonverbal Autism?

No one knows why some individuals with autism can’t or won’t use spoken language. It’s a puzzling matter, mainly since a few nonverbal people on the spectrum can communicate and use sign language, picture cards, or digital tools.

While some children with autism spectrum have apraxia, a neurological disorder that makes the spoken language very difficult, some nonverbal individuals don’t talk. Until recently, nonverbal children were considered intellectually disabled because their IQ scores fell under 70. However, it’s clear that IQ tests are poor tools for measuring intellectual abilities.

How Can You Diagnose Nonverbal Autism?

It’s hard to diagnose a nonverbal autistic person. A doctor can interview a nonverbal child, but it’s also important to talk to teachers and guardians about the child’s history to get the whole picture.

Studies have also shown differences in brain functioning between nonverbal and ordinary people. By using electroencephalograms, an instrument used to measure brainwaves, and MRIs, a tool to measure brain activity, scientists have tried to better understand what’s going on inside the brain of a person who doesn’t speak.

Some symptoms of nonverbal autism are:

  • Not responding to their name
  • Not babbling towards parents
  • Not pointing at objects of interest
  • Not imitating parents or caregivers
  • Repeating words over and over without meaning
  • Flapping their hands
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Not meeting developmental milestones in speech and language

Strategies for Improving Communication

There are many strategies for encouraging and improving communication in children with autism spectrum disorder. However, you should be aware that there is no guarantee that a particular approach will be more effective than the other since children with autism experience the disorder differently.

Here are some ideas you can use at home to improve communication in nonverbal children.

Use Play

Children learn through play. Language can also be learned through play. Interactive play provides plenty of opportunities for your child to communicate with peers, therapists, and even you. Try to find games and activities your child enjoys that promote social interaction, such as singing, gentle wrestling, pretend play, or reciting nursery rhymes.

Don’t forget to position yourself in front of the child and close to eye level during these interactions. This way, it’s easier for your little one to hear and see you and connect with your child.

Use Visual Support

Many autistic children tend to think visually, so use visual cues to engage your child in conversation. For example, you can write out a sentence on a sheet of paper and let your child read it aloud. You can encourage your child further to write a response.

If your little one is not interested in reading or writing sentences, you can try drawing pictures. You can provide your child with crayons and paper and let him draw a picture that represents a word.

Imitate Your Child

You encourage more vocalizing and interaction by mimicking your child’s sounds since your child copies you. As long as it’s a positive behavior, imitate how your child is playing. Your child will hear and process (and even attempt to mimic) your words and reactions. He will see your gestures, facial expressions, and mouth movements. Your child will learn how to take turns and eventually learn communication skills.

Focus on Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is the foundation for verbal communication skills. It begins for babies with gestures and eye contact. Mimicking your child’s gestures and everything he does will make it easier for him to learn better and quicker. The more you act out the words, the easier it will be for your little one to process the meanings of the words.

Pause and Listen

As a parent, you’ll feel the urge to fill in the words when your child doesn’t immediately respond or is on the verge of a meltdown. However, it’s essential to give your child the chance to communicate, even if he’s not talking. Pause for several seconds to wait for a response like any sound or body movement. Even the slightest attempt will teach the child the importance of reciprocal communication.

Start Simple

Your child will grasp words better the easier the language you use is. Start slow and simple; it will help the child quickly follow what you’re saying. Use single words, not complete sentences, and add a verb to the learned noun.

During these interactions, it’s crucial to make eye contact. Children with autism might be afraid of eye contact and avoid it. You can try to put funny stickers on your forehead so that it will attract the child’s attention. It will serve as a reminder that the child should look at other people’s faces.

Consider Using Technological Aid

Assistive technology and visual support can foster the development of speech and language and be the “voice” of the child. For example, some devices and apps with pictures that your child can touch to produce words that indicate requests and thoughts. The device can also emphasize alternative forms of communication, like augmentative communication devices, sign language, or PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System).

Follow Your Kid’s Interests

Narrate what your child is doing when he’s doing something he’s interested in. If he’s playing with a shape sorter, you can say the word “in” when he puts a shape in the slot. By talking about what engages your little one, he might learn the associated vocabulary.

It’s vital to support your autistic child through thick and thin. Make sure he knows you’re always with him. The atmosphere should be positive and healthy for growth. Do not let any negativity affect your autistic child, and don’t feel disappointed if it won’t happen overnight. This process requires patience—it won’t be long before you see any progress.

Give Your Child Space

It’s true what they say: the best way of learning is self-learning. The child should be able to analyze and understand the situation well, but this can only happen if you give him some personal space.

Don’t Lose Hope

The good news is that more people with autism will learn to speak than previously believed. Many studies conclude that nonverbal autism may not be permanent, even if parents of children with autism have been told their child won’t speak by the age of four or five.

Researchers countered this view with a study of 535 children with autism spectrum disorder published in the journal Pediatrics. It concluded that even children with severe language delay (not speaking at all or using single words without verbs) could develop language skills during grade school or adolescence. 70% of children could use short phrases, and 47% attained fluent speech at or after the age of four.

There is hope. Working with your child’s ABA therapist can encourage your child to develop the necessary language skills. You can select the best communication strategies and help nonverbal individuals live fulfilling lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a Child Be Nonverbal and Not Autistic?

Children develop social skills at their own rates, but all need to reach some milestones while growing up. Studies show that children develop their first words between 12 and 18 months old. In the case of children with autism, the rate has an average age of 36 months.

However, late speech does not mean an autism diagnosis. A child can have delayed speech for unrelated reasons, such as:

  • Hearing loss
  • Problems with the mouth
  • Neurological problems
  • Speech and language disorders
  • Intellectual disabilities

How Many Autistic Children Are Nonverbal?

Currently, it’s estimated that up to 40% of kids with ASD are nonverbal.

What Is the Future of Nonverbal Autistic Children?

Many nonverbal autistic individuals can get jobs that don’t require speaking, like a gardener, a janitor, or working in a library. It all depends on the intellectual and cognitive abilities of the child.

Related: What Jobs Are Suitable for Adults with Autism?

Can You Teach a Nonverbal Child to Write?

Nonverbal children can read and write depending on the child’s intellectual abilities. Apps and devices can help nonverbal children learn to express themselves in writing.