Tips for Communicating With Your Nonverbal Child

Techniques to Try With Nonverbal or Pre-Verbal Children

When people hear that a child is nonverbal, they often think of autism (ASD). While some individuals with ASD are nonverbal, there are a variety of other conditions that cause a child to be nonverbal, pre-verbal, or have emerging or delayed verbal skills, either short-term or long-term. These include non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD), childhood speech apraxia, and various speech and language disorders.

Being nonverbal or pre-verbal is not necessarily related to intelligence level—it's important to see a specialist for an accurate diagnosis. Then, seek appropriate speech therapy as part of a treatment plan.

Communication doesn’t always refer to speaking, although it’s still important to speak with your nonverbal child. Each child responds differently to various kinds of communication; find out what works best for your child, and then use it regularly.

Talk with their teachers, therapists, and providers about different techniques and strategies you might be able to utilize. When you have a system that works, let them know about it so that everyone can communicate with your child in a way that works.

Techniques to Foster Communication With a Pre-Verbal or Nonverbal Child

If your child is pre-verbal or nonverbal, there are lots of ways to help foster communication. These techniques don’t take the place of speech therapy or other kinds of therapies unique to their needs, but they are supplemental things you can do to encourage communication in various ways.

Keep Talking

Just because your child might not be verbalizing doesn’t mean you should stop talking to them.

Even if their receptive language is delayed or minimal, keep talking and narrating to them. Include them in conversations and don’t talk about them like they aren't there.

Use Sign Language

Along with American Sign Language (ASL), Makaton sign language is used with nonverbal individuals along with speaking. Makaton uses signs and symbols and is easily adapted to different needs and communication levels.

Pay Attention

Pay attention to nonverbal signals and behaviors, as well as facial expressions. People can communicate in a lot of different ways—spoken words are only a part of this. Your child might be communicating emotions, wants, and needs to you in other ways that you might miss otherwise.

Use Simple Language

Instead of using complicated, multi-word phrases, use one or two-word phrases to label things and give direction.

Keep it simple. If your child can say one-word phrases, then use two-word phrases and directions to give them a little push without overwhelming them.

Pause

After you say something or ask a question, pause for a few moments, just as you would in a conversation with a friend or someone who is verbal. This allows your child some time to answer you in whatever way she or he can. It also models proper basic communication skills for your child.

Sit at Eye Level

Communicating with your child at eye level puts you right in their field of view and allows your child to see your hands, face, and mouth easier. This can help them interpret what you are communicating through your body language as well.

Get Smart

There are multiple apps for smartphones and tablets that can help with communication via games and learning exercises. Some even help turn your device into an assistive communication device.

Use Cues

You can present choices to your child. Label three different snacks A, B, and C, for instance, and have them pick what they want by pointing to a letter. Another option is to get flashcards with pictures on them and have your child show you what they want, or make the choice that they want. PECS (picture exchange communication system) cards are helpful for nonverbal individuals to communicate with as well.

Don’t Underestimate Play

Playtime can be a great time to work on communication, especially with games or toys that involve imitation or encourage cause and effect.

Activities that encourage social interaction, like singing, dancing, or playing with dolls can all be fun ways to practice communication with your child.

Use Alternative Methods of Communication

Children with non-verbal autism, for example, often find that they can express emotions with dancing or art or other hand movements. Try finger painting or sensory activities with them to see if that helps with their self-expression.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to get a nonverbal or pre-verbal child to talk, and each child responds differently to techniques and therapies. It’s important to share what you do with your child’s therapists and care team and ask them for suggestions to explore something you may not have considered before.

It can be challenging sometimes to communicate with a nonverbal child, and it’s important to remember to stay flexible and calm. Nonverbal children are often very attuned to the emotions of those around them, especially those of their parents or caregivers.

It is hard to communicate with nonverbal children, but having a support system is incredibly helpful. Keep practicing with your child, and eventually, you’ll find what resonates and allows for the best communication.

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