The NIH’s page on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) explains, “Children with ASD may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They also often have difficulties communicating nonverbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions.”
While nonverbal children without ASD benefit from reading body language and emotions in their family members and peers, children with ASD are twice-challenged in the communication department. In addition to being a source of struggle for family and social networks, it’s also a source of great frustration for nonverbal children with ASD. Until they and their loved ones learn other communication strategies, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to have their needs met.
Not surprisingly, this nonverbal quality is often one of the first signs that a child has ASD. Before we talk about how to communicate, let’s clarify some of the most common verbal communication challenges
You may notice your child using words, often repetitively, that have nothing to do with the conversation or task at hand. For example, grandma might be asking what Alice wants to do when she comes to visit, but Alice is repetitively counting back and forth from one to 10. Or, you may be giving a project cleanup instruction as your child repeats certain words and phrases right back at you in a robotic tone (echolalia).
You may also notice delayed echolalia, where the child repeats the questions she’s used to hearing rather than using “I’d like..” “I want..” or “I need..,” statements. For example, he might ask, “Do you want your orange square snack?” when he’s the one who wants the snack.
Some parents admit their child was less verbal and more communicative. However, many children with ASD have areas of intense focus or interest and an uncanny ability to store and recall information. Thus, while s/he has a hard time communicating wants, needs, or emotions, s/he’ll happily go on for hours about dinosaurs, the galaxy, music theory, mathematical equations, or the periodic table of elements.
The needs of these children are often overlooked because adults feel like anyone who is that verbal should be able to express themselves verbally in other ways. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that for many children with ASD. These children need extra tools to develop more expressive communication skills.
Many children with ASD can speak to a point, but their language development is delayed or uneven. They may learn to read above grade level but not understand what they’re reading. Or they may learn certain words just fine, especially things they just learned or heard, but not be able to recall them later. Sometimes children speak but don’t respond when spoken to, or may not respond to their own names. This may cause parents or teachers to think they’re hard of hearing when in fact, it’s a nonverbal language issue.
This brings us back to the point that children with ASD are often doubly challenged because they also misread cues in addition to not using or interpreting spoken language correctly. For example, they don’t gesture or follow others’ gestures; they don’t automatically understand the difference between a person’s smile, frown, angry jaw set, or tears.
Here are six ways you and your family can encourage communication with your nonverbal child with ASD.
Child development experts can’t emphasize enough that play is a child’s job. Playtime is instrumental for children to learn more about the world around them and practice that learning. Make time every day to interactively engage in play that orients around your child’s preferences.
Puzzles, games, coloring, cards, building models, etc., all offer opportunities to teach colors, etiquette (“you may have the crayon when you’ve said, ‘please hand me the red crayon’”), interpreting facial expressions on characters, predictive story modeling, “when X happens to people, they often feel Y,” etc. In addition to absorbing communication cues little by little, your child also practices their social skills.
If it’s snack time, playtime, clothing time, etc., always offer two choices.
This simplifies input and gives choice and autonomy, as well as preference, which can help prevent meltdowns or other disciplinary issues.
Children with ASD tend to be visual learners, so symbols and pictures often go further than words. Use charts, symbols, and flashcards to communicate all kinds of things to your child, including:
There are plenty of resources online for free or very affordable pre-made options you can print at home. You can also speak to your pediatrician or behavioral support specialist about tablets and online applications designed to support visual communication with individuals on the autistic spectrum.
If your child is able to pick up on some physical cues (like gesturing), try using sign language. In fact, using sign language with any baby/toddler is helpful. All humans are largely nonverbal until they learn to speak (typically beginning sometime in the first three years), but they can often learn to understand and use sign language.
Autism Parenting Magazine’s post, Benefits of Sign Language…, cites a list of pros for teaching your child with ASD sign language, including:
Nonverbal children require simple words and exaggerated expressions/emotional cues when they’re developing their communication skills. When you say, “Yes,” nod your head noticeably, and then shake your head from side to side when saying, “no.”
Keep emotional language simple, and make sure your body posture and facial expressions match your feeling. Avoid the urge to “fill in words” or finish their sentences, creating a shutdown and frustration. Instead, be patient and give your child the space to work through what they’re trying to say.
If you know your child is on the autism spectrum and they are nonverbal, reach out to behavioral specialists in your area. The sooner you get support from professionals who work with families with children with ASD on a regular basis, the sooner you have access to resources, peers, toolkits, and support that make unrivaled positive changes in your life.
Texas's Autism Response Team (ART) is ready to support you and your family as you get the information, education, tools, and support you need to facilitate successful communication and social interactions. Contact us online, or give us a call at (877) 77-ARTTX, to learn more about our services or schedule an assessment.