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How to Communicate with a Nonverbal Autistic Child

May 6, 2024

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was learn how to communicate with my nonverbal child. Joey is as smart as they come, but he’s unable to communicate through speech. This is a constant problem for parents of nonverbal children. 

Spoken language may be the most common form of communication, but we have to learn to meet our children in the middle. There are many different methods of communication available for nonverbal children. Let’s look at some of the unique ways we can communicate with them to ensure understanding.

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Unique ways nonverbal kids communicate

There are many different ways for nonverbal children to communicate, but each will take time and patience for the parent to learn. Some of the unique ways include:

  • picture exchange communication system
  • sign language
  • AAC devices
  • fine motor skills and gestures

My son has used all four of these ways at different times to communicate. His most common form of communication is his AAC device.

We use an iPad with a communication program where he can form the phrase “I want (blank)” for whatever he wants. He uses this to ask us for snacks, car rides, or his favorite television program.

Prior to our health insurance approving him for an AAC device, we used the picture exchange communication system or PECS. This was often used in conjunction with gestures and a limited amount of American sign language.

If he pointed to a cabinet, we knew he wanted a snack. From there, we would find the pictures with food on them and let him point to the one he wanted. After getting his snack, if he wanted more, he would use sign language to communicate more. He could also use sign language to communicate “eat” or “drink” as well as “all done” when he was finished.

A young boy communicating with his dad using sign language
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Remember, each child responds differently to each form of communication. While each of these has worked at different times for my son, you may have to work harder or longer with your nonverbal child, or your child may pick up these nonverbal communication skills faster than mine did.

How to communicate with a nonverbal child

Once you have the best form of communication for your child, it’s up to us as parents to learn the system as well. Communication is a two-way street, and learning with your child can encourage social interaction for our children with autism. Here are some excellent ways to encourage communication with your child.

1. Get involved with activities that interest them

All children have interests, but it may be difficult to know what your child is interested in if they are nonverbal. It’s important to pay attention to what your child enjoys so that you can take a similar interest as your autistic child. Once you know what your child likes, you can use that activity to encourage communication skills.

My son with autism loves the water, and especially the aquarium, so we got a family membership. He will use hand gestures to help guide us to what animals he wants to see when we go.

He will request the aquarium or some type of animal we only see at the aquarium when he wants to go. He may not be able to speak, but recognizing his interest in water helped us find an activity he likes and a way for him to communicate with us.

2. Use familiar nonverbal cues

Your child may not be verbal, but they have ways of letting you know what they like or want. Pay attention to these nonverbal cues and use them to help hone their communication skills. 

Hand gestures, smiling, eye contact, and sign language can go a long way to helping your child with autism understand their communication is being accepted and possibly reciprocated.

Teach your child how to ask for more food, drink, television, or whatever they may want through these familiar nonverbal cues. Let them know you understand their desires even if they can’t speak them to you.

3. Use imitation

Many children will learn nonverbal communication skills if they see other people using them. Model your child’s AAC device, and they will start using it. Use sign language to ask for something, and the child will start copying those skills.


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Point to an item, and if your child wants it, they will point to it. Imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also a way to build rapport with your child.

Before we got the PECS and AAC device, we would imitate my child to help him grasp that we understood what he wanted. Imitation strategies help engage the child and let them know you are paying attention to them.

4. Use simple language

While a nonverbal child may not be able to speak, that doesn’t mean they don’t understand speech. Using simple language when speaking to them can go a long way to fostering the child’s development. Keeping the phrases you use short and simple can help them know that you understand them when you are communicating with them.

Being able to say “yes” or “no” is an effective form of communication that can help your child understand. While that’s a start, expanding to other simple phrases can also help with imitation.

Working on speech imitation using simple language can lead to spoken words from your children. Simple language paired with imitation can help a child become, at least, minimally verbal.

5. Use visual aids

Communication through visual aids can also help many parents understand what their child likes or wants. This can be through an AAC device with pictures that help children learn or through PECS or flash cards. Visual aids can help the autistic child understand what something is and how they can ask for it.

Communication flashcards
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Arm yourself with patience and understanding

Not being able to speak does not mean the same as not being able to communicate. It’s up to parents to learn how their nonverbal autistic children can inform them of their wants, needs, and desires.

People communicate nonverbally whether they have autism or not. But when a child has autism spectrum disorder, it’s up to the parents to learn what to do and meet the child at eye level to communicate with them.

Work with your child’s teachers, speech therapist, and anyone else who helps provide support for them. Engage in creative strategies to help foster communication. It may not lead to your child speaking, but it can go a long way in developing social skills that help them have a more fun childhood.

FAQs

Q: What shouldn’t you do with a nonverbal autistic child?

A: Parents and caregivers should never assume a nonverbal autistic child can’t communicate just because they can’t speak. Children with ASD know what they want and will let people know, even if it’s through nontraditional means.

Q: How can I help my nonverbal autistic child to speak?

A: Parents can help encourage verbal communication from their child through imitation, using simple language, and engaging in their child’s interests.

Q: How do you calm a nonverbal autistic child?

A: The best ways to calm a nonverbal child include providing a safe space, removing sensory triggers, using calming sensory objects, providing distractions, and assisting with breathing techniques.

Q: Do kids grow out of nonverbal autism?

A: Many nonverbal children with autism will eventually develop some language skills. Through work with parents, teachers, and therapists, some of these children can develop a full vocabulary, but many do not ever develop the ability to speak.

Q: When is a child considered nonverbal?

A: Children with autism who have not begun to verbalize by age four are often considered nonverbal. These children can often imitate sounds and maybe even a few words through imitation, but none are spoken spontaneously.

References

Chiang, CH., Soong, WT., Lin, TL. et al. Nonverbal Communication Skills in Young Children with Autism. J Autism Dev Disord 38, 1898–1906 (2008)

Gordon, K., Pasco, G., McElduff, F., Wade, A., Howlin, P., & Charman, T. (2011) A communication-based intervention for nonverbal children with autism: What changes? Who benefits? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(4), 447–457

Laister, D., Stammler, M., Vivanti, G., & Holzinger, D. (2021). Social-communicative gestures at baseline predict verbal and nonverbal gains for children with autism receiving the Early Start Denver Model Autism, 25(6), 1640-1652

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