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Parenting Your Nonverbal Child with Autism

April 11, 2023

A respected educator offers advice for supporting your nonverbal child on the spectrum.

Parenting Your Nonverbal Child with Autism

It is not uncommon for a child with autism to present with a speech or communication concern. Many researchers believe as high as 40 percent of children with autism may be nonverbal.

The following practical suggestions may help you to assist and support your child with autism who is nonvocal or nonverbal:

1. Get a proper diagnosis

Many people misunderstand the term “nonverbal.” The faulty assumption is that it means a  child with autism will have no speech ability throughout his/her lifetime. This is not always the case. A lack of speech doesn’t mean the person can’t communicate. Some children with autism who have been identified as nonverbal do have some speech ability or have developed other ways to communicate, which is why some in the autism community prefer the term nonvocal.

Not all children with autism who do not speak or present with limited speech do so due to their autism. It could be due to other issues such as a hearing loss, a medical issue with their throat, selective mutism, emotional trauma, or an intellectual delay. For this reason, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis for your child from a pediatrician. 

Your family doctor may refer you to a developmental-behavioral pediatrician. During the evaluation, he/she will obtain a full medical history. The pediatrician may want to review the mother’s pregnancy, as well as a history of any surgeries, hospitalizations, or medical treatments your child may have had. 

Testing may be conducted using instruments such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2) or the Childhood Autism Rating Scale-3rd Edition. Once you have a proper diagnosis, you’ll be better equipped to assist your child and to advocate for him/her.

2. All behavior is communication

Often, your child will be defined by others according to his/her behavior. Some may assume your child with autism has a “bad temper” or that his/her behavior is out of control.

As an advocate for your child, it is essential that you understand that all behavior is generally an attempt to communicate. Your child pounding a table, pointing, crying, screaming, etc. may all be a form of communication. The child may be attempting to access the desired item, express a feeling, or gain parents’ attention. 

3. Educators

It is crucial to begin working with specialized educators as soon as possible. The sooner early intervention commences, the higher the level of success that may be achievable. This may mean placing your child in an Early Childhood Program, obtaining Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services, or requesting services from a teacher of autism at the local school system. 

These specialized educators can help you make decisions concerning the communication needs of your child, whether he/she is nonvocal or in the process of acquiring improved verbal skills. They can also develop programs to assist your child with developing eye contact when attempting to communicate,  developing appropriate facial expressions, and recognizing the facial expressions of others.

4. Speech and language therapists

Every parent wants his/her child to be able to utilize speech effectively. It may be helpful to consult with a licensed speech and language therapist. They will work diligently to help your child maximize his/her speech potential. If your child is not ready to speak, a speech therapist can assist by determining an alternative communication method.

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5. Augmentative communication

Your child with autism may presently have limited or no speech ability. In such cases, a speech therapist may recommend augmentative communication devices for your child. Don’t be hesitant to inform the speech therapist if you are not familiar with such devices. The speech therapist can show you the devices or even allow you to borrow one to try at home. 

There are many different types of augmentative communication devices. Some children with autism thrive using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). This is a series of picture icons the child can point to in order to make his/her needs known. 

Some programs, like Proloquo and TouchChat, can be downloaded to his/her iPad. Your child will point to the picture icon on their iPad and it will speak for them. 

Other students with autism who are nonverbal thrive when introduced to American Sign Language. They are able to develop their expressive and receptive language skills by using their hands. Your speech and language therapist can work with your family to determine which communication system is the best fit.

6. Consulting with other parents

You are not the first parent and not the last one to have to make a decision about your child’s communication. Seeking out other autism parents may assist you with making this choice. It will give you the opportunity to interact with another family dealing with similar decisions and you may benefit from their knowledge. Having such support in place could reduce some of the anxiety that may accompany making a communication choice for your child with autism.

7. Redirecting communication efforts

Others in your family and the local community may be aware that your child with autism has limited verbal skills. When communicating, they may address you instead of your child. You don’t want to answer for your child and create a “learned helplessness” situation. 

You need to tell your family or community members to address their communication directly to your child. You don’t want your child to feel as though he/she is being talked about as if he/she is not present. 

Model for others how to effectively communicate with your child. Remind others not to rush your child for a response. Giving him/her some extra time to respond may reduce your child’s stress. 

Finally, remind your family and community members to communicate naturally with your child with autism. Using “baby talk” will not assist your child with his/her own communication needs. Using age-appropriate language will be essential for your child to develop self-esteem.

8. Using play and interests

Play is a great way to engage your child. As the parent, you are probably the person that knows his/her specific interests best. Use this knowledge to encourage your child to communicate wants and needs during a play activity. This allows your child to communicate in a natural and relaxed atmosphere. Also, offering your child options may help him/her understand the functional reason behind communicating.

9. Practice, practice, practice

The best way for your child to develop communication skills is to practice daily. A child needs to recognize that his/her communication skills are useful in a variety of settings. This can include school, home, church, the grocery store, etc. 

It will be essential for you to praise your child with autism every time he or she attempts to communicate. Also, don’t expect perfection every time. Having an established routine at home may also be useful so your child with autism can anticipate when he/she may need to attempt to communicate.

10. High expectations

It is sometimes easy for parents to simply stop communicating with their child with autism who is nonverbal. Continue to be a role model for your child with autism. Set high but realistic expectations and allow your child to understand that you want him/her to communicate with you. Over time, you may observe progress in your child’s ability to communicate.

 This article was featured in Issue 127 – Nonverbal Communication

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