As a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, one of the biggest challenges you could face relates to one of the most fundamental aspects of being a doting parent: understanding your child’s wants and needs.
You want nothing more in this world than to be able to know when your child is hungry and what they would like to eat… or when they need some extra attention and comforting. You might struggle to tell whether your child is amused with the things going on around them… or scared and bewildered. You might find yourself unsure of whether your child feels comfortable and secure in an unfamiliar environment… or anxious and apprehensive.
Without knowing when your child is hungry or cold or feeling insecure or frightened, it might feel impossible to be the best parent you can be. For many parents, this is a scary situation that comes with a lot of worry. Having a child with autism makes this difficult enough, but if your child is non-verbal the challenges are compounded. This could easily become something that keeps you up at night.
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It was a long held belief that children who remained non-verbal after the age of four would never speak, but a 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed there was reason to hold out hope. The study looked at 500 children and concluded that non-verbal kids can, in fact, learn to speak later in life, with some developing language skills and a surprising level of fluency even in their teenage years.
This means that engaging a non-verbal child doesn’t necessarily mean being resigned to non-verbal methods of communication forever. New breakthroughs have shown that you can actually use non-verbal methods as a way to begin encouraging your child to use words… and in the meantime develop effective strategies for figuring out what they want and need.
It’s always important to remember that no two children with ASD are the same. A strategy that works for one child, might not work for another. But there are some tried and tested techniques parents can use to get through to a non-verbal child, and just as importantly, to help the child convey their needs and desires to parents.
Here you’ll find the six strategies we believe are most effective in fostering communication with a non-verbal child:
Nonverbal Communication is a Bridge to Language Development
While speaking is the goal for many parents, many children can find equally effective ways to communicate nonverbally. In fact, many of these non-verbal communications, like hand gestures and eye contact, are the building blocks for language. So, it’s important to encourage their development as a precursor to speech.
Be sure to model these behaviors for your child by exaggerating your own hand gestures and making it easy for your child to copy you. When you want your child to pick up a toy, don’t just ask them, but point to the toy with your hand and nod “yes” when they select the right one.
Clapping, holding out your arms, and opening your hands are universally recognized gestures even a young, non-verbal child is likely to be able to interpret.
Play and Social Interaction Create Lots of Opportunities to Describe Things
Your child will have plenty of opportunities to learn and interact socially through play. Playing games your child enjoys, especially those involving sorting and matching, are a great option, because they work on visual and motor skills, as well as communication.
Anything to get your kid using their hands, like play dough, creates lots of opportunities for them to describe the tactile experience, using gestures at first, then eventually words. The connection between physical sensations and being compelled to describe the feeling can be very strong.
You can even get musical by singing or playing toy instruments. When playing with your child, always be sure to place yourself at eye level so your child can easily see and hear you while you play together and learn from watching what you do.
Imitation is a Form of Communicating Mutual Understanding
Another great strategy for parents of non-verbal children is imitation. The cool thing about imitation is that it can go both ways, just like a conversation!
You start off by imitating your child, how they sound and play, to encourage them to do more of both. Imitation games are as simple as it sounds: If your child stacks a lego on their tower, you stack a lego on yours. If your child knocks the tower over, you knock yours over too!
All the basic items found in any toy box, whether balls, legos, cars, dolls, action figures or books, give you an opportunity to engage in games that involve role playing as a way to interact and communicate with gestures and imitation that don’t necessarily require words at first.
Let Your Child Set the Pace and the Topic That Holds Their Interest
It’s important to take your child’s lead. Allowing your child to choose the topic and set the pace is a great way to make sure they don’t lose focus. Follow along with what your child is already doing and narrate their activity using words. So, if your child is sorting shapes, say “square” when they hold up that shape and “in” when they place that piece in its proper basket.
This way, you are allowing your child to focus on what they are interested in and encouraging your child to connect the words with their chosen activity.
Choosing your words so that they are easier for your child to understand is a wise idea. You may consider talking to your child using only single words like “take” or “ball” in the beginning. Using a single word makes things very simple for your child to understand and imitate. Then, as your child starts using these words, you can add a word to the phrase, like “take toy” or “roll ball.” You can keep building on the phrases to they are able to convey complete ideas in full sentences.
Consider Using Assistive Devices
There are many types of assistive devices available that are designed to help children and adults with ASD who struggle to communicate, both those who are capable of talking and those that are completely non-verbal. It’s important to understand that these devices are not just meant to take the place of speech; they are designed to be a foundation for communication as well.
Visual supports also help children to make requests and share thoughts by touching pictures that then produce words. There are many devices available, as well as apps that can be downloaded directly to your phone or tablet.
Avoid the Urge to Respond for Your Child and Give Them Some Space
Keep in mind that sometimes your child may not respond, or respond fully. And that is okay. You may feel the urge to complete sentences, mouth the responses you’re hoping to hear, or answer questions on their behalf when someone else is asking, but it’s okay to give them the space to answer, even if the answer simply isn’t coming.
Children with ASD need time and space to think and process. And, sometimes, they aren’t going to answer at all. But you have to keep providing them with the opportunities to respond rather than doing it for them.
Wait several seconds after you answer a question and look at your child with interest. Watch for any signs of sound or movement. And, if they do offer a response of any kind, be sure to react and respond quickly. Providing this kind of reinforcement can be the most empowering thing you can do for your child.