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Understanding A Nonverbal Child

Published on 10/31/2022
understanding a nonverbal child

Raising a nonverbal child may not be as easy as one that communicates using words, but that’s no reason to worry or stress. Nonverbal children communicate all the time; our job as parents, guardians, and loved ones is to pay careful attention and learn what their nonverbal cues are telling us.

That learning curve can seem steep at first, but with a few expert recommendations, you’ll soon learn to communicate as needed with a child who doesn’t use words. Over time, you may even find that backing off the emphasis of word-based communication allows the words to eventually make their way out.

Tips For Communicating With An ASD Child Who Doesn’t Speak

The average parent expects to parent a nonverbal child until age two or three. But, by age three, a nonverbal child raises red flags for parents, healthcare providers, and educators. Yes, we hear stories about highly-verbal older children and adults that didn’t start speaking until age four or five, but this is rarer. And, it’s important to note that early intervention is always preferred over delayed intervention if there is a particular reason for their nonverbal state, like autism, auditory disorders, processing disorders, etc.

As autismspeaks.org reminds us, “Nonverbal individuals with autism have much to contribute to society and can live fulfilling lives with the help of visual supports and assistive technologies.” With that in mind, here are our tips for understanding a nonverbal child.

Use sign language or Makaton

Sometimes a nonverbal child does just fine with adaptive communication strategies such as sign language or Makaton, which is a hybrid sign language that also incorporates symbols and speech. Both language systems are also helpful for babies and toddlers, who are almost always able to communicate using signs, gestures, or symbols before communicating with words.

The great news about our online world is that your family can take high-quality sign language and Makaton courses online. Start by visiting Learn ASL or signing up for a Level One Makaton workshop. You’ll almost always verbalize what you’re communicating while using these language tools, so your child is immersed in the full communication experience. 

Keep a trigger journal

Many nonverbal children are exceptionally sensitive to loud sounds, bright lights, busy environments, or even people expressing intense emotions. You may find the struggle to understand a nonverbal child is greatest when s/he’s upset. 

Pay close attention to what is happening when s/he’s triggered by keeping a trigger journal log. Note everything you can, like the time of day, the environment, who is there (in what quantity), what just happened, what’s going to happen, and anything else you can. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to hone in on exactly what sets your child off. In addition to helping you prevent future outbursts, it will also help you communicate with your child and begin experimenting with soothing solutions to minimize disruptive tantrums or meltdowns as much as possible.

Ask them to use your hand to indicate what they want

If your child isn’t pointing or able to indicate what they want, see if they can move your hand towards their object of interest. If they vocalize their satisfaction or discontent, ask them to use those same sounds to encourage or discourage your hand movement. Young children often enjoy this game immensely, and you’ll enjoy how your practice together makes it faster and faster to identify what they want.

Note: This is a temporary substitute, and we highly recommend that you continue using other tools and tricks to further improve communication between your child and their family, peers, teachers, friends, etc.

Create visual symbol cards and charts

Visual symbols and charts are helpful in any family, but especially those where one or more children have autism spectrum disorder. If symbols work well for your child, symbol flashcard sets are a way to construct basic meaning via imagery. You may post these around the house to identify objects, streamline symbols when using behavior charts, or create daily routine sequences - such as Clock time + symbol + symbol + symbol = bedtime). 

You can also purchase pre-printed versions online. My Essential Need Falshcards is a basic set, but its affordable price gives you the chance to see if they work for your child. If symbol communication works, you can invest in more developed versions

Pay close attention to body language

Everyone knows the schpiel about how most communication happens via body language, not words. However, talkative people rarely stay quiet enough to observe and understand this truth. As a parent, caregiver, or loved one of someone with ASD, you have the opportunity to see how true this is. 

We cannot make generalizations here because children with ASD are each unique. However, paying close attention to your child’s body language, expressions, and non-verbal tones or vocalizations will help you understand their body language.

That might look like:

  • Certain types of repeat actions (stims) when they're happy versus other stims when they're agitated, angry, or sad.
  • A blank face doesn’t mean “lack of emotion” but, instead, “I’m processing something internally I don’t know how to express yet.”
  • Stimming in a conversation may be necessary to help them regulate and process the emotions coming up for them. This is often a compliment of sorts - indicating they feel comfortable being themselves (especially in older children who are aware that stimming makes them “different” from their peers.
  • Lack of eye contact may mean the emotional or vulnerable connection overwhelms them. Perhaps you create a “secret sign,” like a raised index finger or a low thumbs up indicating, “I am paying attention to you, but it’s hard to look you in the eyes right now.”
  • Seemingly angry or exaggerated gestures are actually just part of the impaired proprioception (awareness of body, body in space, and body intensity) that is often part of the ASD experience.

The more you understand your loved one’s body language, the more you can regulate, breathe, relax, avoid taking things personally, and begin understanding a nonverbal child or adult in new ways. The things you learn and apply at home, in the classroom, or on playdates support your child in making better friendships and experiencing more positive feedback in their social interactions.

Bonus Tip: Work with professional applied behavior analysts

If you’re struggling to understand and communicate with a nonverbal child, consider consulting with professionally applied behavior analysts. We are experts at observing your child in their various environments and learning what their body language and personal communication style are trying to express.

Contact Us So We Can Help You And Your Nonverbal Child

The Autism Response Team works closely with children with ASD and their caregivers and families in various settings. Family involvement ensures the greatest success in the least amount of time. Sibling support programs, and sibling play programs, are put in place to teach about the diagnosis and involve the siblings in treatment for lifelong support. Parent feedback and training are also provided to empower our parents and minimize the long-term need for ABA services. Contact us to schedule a consultation and learn more about how we can help you understand and engage with your nonverbal child.

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