Understanding the Minimally Verbal or Nonverbal Child with Autism

Communication Tips for Parents

Perhaps one of the most frustrating issues for the parents and other family members of a minimally verbal or nonverbal child with autism is the inability to fully connect. Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty with language and relate better to objects than people, which can make it especially hard for their siblings and parents to get to know them. Also, nonverbal children with ASD are more likely to have tantrums and engage in other self-destructive and maladaptive behaviors since they can’t easily express their needs or their thoughts.

The good news is that recent research has demonstrated that, even after the age of four, many nonverbal children with autism can develop language skills. In addition to considering speech therapy, there are practices that you can use at home to reinforce what is being taught in class and to help your child with ASD develop stronger language skills. Of course, every child is different, and you know your child best—so be sure to modify any tips or suggestions to fit your situation.

Make it a Game

All children learn through playing, and this is especially true for children with special needs. Imitate the sounds that your child makes and the actions your child does during play in order to encourage more vocalization and interaction. When you copy your child’s play behaviors, it encourages your child to copy you in return. Sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, play Peek-A-Boo—anything to get your child moving and making some noise.

Build on Your Child’s Language Skills

When you play, or perform other activities with your child, be sure to get as close to eye level as possible so that your child can see and mimic your facial expressions and word formations. You should also narrate what you and your child are doing together in order to model language skills. For example, if your child is playing with a toy car, say “car” and “vroom” as your child pushes the toy. Keep the language simple and descriptive. Finally, when your child does talk during play, respond promptly and positively, repeating what your child says and adding one word. For instance, if your child points to a toy and says “ball” hand your child the ball and say something like “red ball” or “ball rolls.” Responding promptly and adding a single word will reward your child’s effort, demonstrate the power of communication, and push language skills further.

Enter Into Your Child’s World

Making communication a game is one way to enter into your child’s world, but not the only way. Get to know your child’s preferred love language, notice your child’s mannerisms, expressions, and interests, use motivating items or people, and pay attention to where, when, and how your child attempts to communicate. If your child will only attempt to talk while in bed under a blanket, for example, sit on the floor next to his or her bed to encourage communication—or get under the blanket, too! Showing a willingness to enter into your child’s world will make your child more likely to enter into your world.   

Emphasize Body Language & Gestures

Perhaps what we should say here is overemphasize body language and gestures. We all know that much of our normal, everyday communication is already nonverbal—but, sometimes, parents can become so focused on their child’s ability or inability to use language that they forget about all of the tools that they do have available. The key is to combine exaggerated eye contact and big gestures with language. Point to the item that you are talking about, nod or shake your head when saying “yes” or “no” or clap your hands to indicate excitement or happiness. Many parents have also had success teaching their children simple signs for common needs such as hungry, thirsty, or hurt.

Consider Communication Devices

There are a number of effective communication aids for children with ASD on the market, from autism language apps that combine pictures, sounds and words to help build vocabulary to personal augmentative and alternative communication devices, or AAC Devices. Since children and adolescents tend to relate better to objects than people, personal communication devices can help them focus their communication efforts in a non-threatening way. Even giving your child time to type on the family computer can be a good way to assist communication. While language apps tend to be affordable, some AAC Devices can be pricey—so be sure to shop around and ask if you can try before you buy.

Use Visual Cues

Visual cues are another fantastic form of aided communication. The goal of visual supports is not to take the place of language but to help language take root and grow. Use social stories or create picture books with your child to prepare for big events or to reinforce daily routines such as getting dressed and preparing for bed. Spend time looking at pictures together and talking about what you see in each picture.  

Any language development strategies you choose to try will work best when done in conjunction with your child’s speech and occupational therapists, who can give you many more ideas for practices to put in place at home.

The most important point to remember is that communicating and connecting with a minimally verbal or nonverbal child with ASD requires a lot of patience and a total communication approach that combines both aided and unaided communication. Don’t use one method and expect your child to conform to your way of communicating—instead, pay careful attention to your child’s mannerisms, how your child expresses needs as well as emotions like joy, excitement, and frustration, and be ready and willing to adapt your practices as necessary. Building up language skills and affirming communication by any means necessary are the ultimate goals.