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There are many reasons why your child may be non-verbal. The key is for you to identify and understand the range of their communication difficulty and possibly the underlying cause. In this blog you will find out about stages of communication, setting your speech goals for a non-verbal child, and how to actively encourage your child's communication.

What you’ll find in this article:

For example, your child may be non-verbal due to a language disorder or speech delay; they may even have a physical speech impediment that prevents them from being able to speak at all.

The most common cause of children being non-verbal is that they have difficulty understanding social interactions and responding within them – something that is largely seen in autistic children and in other developmental disorders such as Down Syndrome.

What Is Communication?

Before you can help your nonverbal child to verbalize, you need to understand why you want them to verbalize, and what skills they require to do so.

Children and adults verbalize in order to communicate. Communication happens when one person sends a message to another person. You can send this message in a variety of ways and for different reasons.

The core aspects of communication involve:

  • How you communicate, and
  • Why you communicate

Communication is a process. Effective communication is built through interaction and connection, which is the basis of two-way communication. Oftentimes, nonverbal children have difficulty verbalizing because they have some degree of difficulty interacting with others. This makes developing communication skills even harder.

In order to have successful interactions your child needs to:

  • Respond to others’ communication attempts, and
  • Initiate communication attempts with others

If you’d like to learn more about communication and how complex it can be, watch this video.

Your Child’s Likes and Dislikes

Nonverbal Child Communication Activities

The most important tool to use when working on communication with nonverbal children is targeting their likes and dislikes. You can use these to encourage communication by focusing on their likes so that you know what motivates them to communicate. Use structured activities that will incorporate your child’s likes and dislikes!

How Does Your Non-verbal Child Communicate and Why?

Just because your child isn’t speaking, doesn’t mean that they aren’t communicating. Children communicate through actions, sounds, body language, and words. If you discover how your child communicates, you can develop their strengths and teach them other forms of communication through those modalities.

Your child may be communicating non-verbally:

  • Crying or screaming
  • Moving their body next to people and things they are interested in
  • Turning their body away from people and things they aren’t interested in
  • Using gestures and facial expressions
  • Reaching with an open hand for things they want
  • Taking your hand to get you to do things for them
  • Looking at things they want
  • Pointing to things they want and then at you for assistance
  • Using pictures
  • Making sounds and speech sounds

It’s not enough to simply look at how your child communicates, you also need to look at why they communicate. Once you know the purpose of their communication you can help your child find more ways and more reasons to communicate.

Your Child’s Stage of Communication

In her book “More Than Words: A Guide to Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” author Fern Sussman describes non-verbal children as being on a four-stage continuum.

By identifying your child’s stage of communication, you will know what they can and cannot do, as well as what you can expect them to do next. This will help you set communication goals for them.

These are the four stages of speech and language development by Fern Sussman:

1) Own Agenda Stage

A child at this stage wants to play alone and appears uninterested in people and activities around them. They don’t understand that they can affect people by sending a message directly to them, so they display no intentional communication. You can expect your child to:

  • Understand almost no words
  • Almost never interact with other children
  • Cry or scream to protest
  • Laugh
  • Interact with you briefly
  • Want to do things alone
  • Reach for what they want
  • Look at what they want
  • Smile
  • Play in unusual ways

2) Requester Stage

A child at this stage is beginning to realize that their actions can have an effect on you. They ask you for things they want or need by pulling or leading you to it, and they enjoy playing physical “People Games.” You can expect your child to:

  • Interact with you briefly
  • Echo/copy a few words that you say in an attempt to communicate
  • Understand the steps in familiar routines
  • Request that you continue a physical “People Game” with eye contact, smiles, body movements, and sounds when you pause or stop playing
  • Occasionally follow directions if they can see what they need to do

3) Early Communicator Stage

A child at this stage is using specific gestures, sounds, pictures or words consistently to ask for things in very motivating situations. Their social interactions last longer and their communication is more intentional, though they still mainly communicate to ask you to do things for them. You can expect your child to:

  • Interact with you and familiar people in familiar situations
  • Take more turns in “People Games”
  • Begin to protest or refuse using the same forms of communication
  • Occasionally use the same forms of communication to get your attention or to show you something
  • Understand simple, familiar sentences with visual cues
  • Understand the names of familiar objects and people without visual cues
  • Say “hi” and “bye”
  • Answer yes/no questions
  • Answer “what’s that?” questions

4) Partner Stage

A child at this stage is a more effective communicator with a certain set of language skills. They should be able to talk and carry on a simple conversation. They sometimes can’t come up with their own words and rely on memorized words or phrases. This usually happens in unfamiliar situations when they don’t understand what is being said and struggle to grasp the rules of conversation. You can expect your child to:

  • Participate in longer interactions with you
  • Play with other children successfully in familiar play routines
  • Use words or another method of communication to:
    • Request
    • Protest
    • Greet
    • Draw your attention to something
    • Ask and answer questions
  • Start to use words and/or another method of communication to:
    • Talk about the past and the future
    • Express feelings
    • Pretend
  • Make up their own sentences
  • Sometimes repair or fix what they say when someone doesn’t understand them

Setting Communication Goals

Now that you have read about the stages of communication, and know your child’s level of communication, you can set goals for them to challenge and actively encourage their communication.

You can do this by following Fern Sussman’s communication continuum as described in her book “More Than Words,” as well as this post. 

Just because your child isn’t speaking, doesn’t mean that they aren’t communicating.

The key to helping your child communicate lies in setting realistic expectations for them. Ultimately, you want your child to achieve the following primary goals:

  1. Interaction with you and other people
  2. Communicating in new ways
  3. Communicating for new reasons

The best way to achieve these goals is to use your child’s likes and dislikes, as well as their stage of communication.

Once you know your child’s stage, continue reading this article.

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1) Goals for the Own Agenda Stage

  • Encourage your child to have joyful interactions with you in physical “People Games” 
  • Set up situations for your child to communicate intentionally, starting with requests
  • Teach your child to take turns using forms of communication (body movement, eye contact, smiling, sounds, etc.) during physical and sensory play
  • Increase your child’s understanding of activities so that they can begin to respond to what you say

For more information, guidance, and techniques on how to work with your non-verbal child at the Own Agenda stage watch this video:

2) Goals for the Requester Stage

  • Help your child use an action or sound to get you to continue a physical “People Game”
  • Help your child replace pulling and leading you with forms of communication
  • Increase the things for which your child makes requests
  • Help your child understand several familiar words
  • Encourage your child to play “People Games” with other familiar people – like siblings or grandparents

This video will tell you how to work with a child at the Requester Stage:

3) Goals for the Early Communicator Stage

  • Teach your child to take turns with you and other people in physical “People Games”
  • Encourage your child to initiate physical “People Games” rather than just waiting for you to do so
  • Help your child increase their use of communication forms to make requests in new situations
  • Help your child improve the way they communicate by turning:
    • “Echoes/copying” into spontaneous speech
    • Gestures into signs, speech, or picture communication
    • Picture communication into verbal communication
    • Single-word communication into short phrases
  • Help your child communicate for a variety of reasons by encouraging them to:
    • Refuse and protest
    • Answer questions
    • Say “hello” and “bye”
    • Shift their gaze between you and something they’re interested in
    • Draw your attention to someone or something
    • Comment on unusual or favorite things
  • Help your child understand familiar words and phrases and follow simple directions

4) Goals for the Partner Stage

  • Help your child change the way they communicate by:
    • Replacing “echolalia/copying” with their own words
    • Using correct words and sentences in conversation
  • Help your child communicate for a wide variety of reasons such as:
    • Answering closed- and open-ended question
    • Talking about the past and future
    • Talking about feelings
    • Playing “Pretend”
  • Help your child have conversations by
    • Showing them how to start and end a conversation
    • Showing them how to stay on topic
    • Explaining that others don’t always understand what they mean so they have to change what they say
    • Explaining that they should ask for clarification if they don’t understand
  • Help your child improve their understanding by teaching them how to:
    • Identify and describe feelings
    • Make comparisons
    • Behave
    • Problem-solve
    • That other people have different points of view
  • Help your child play and communicate successfully with other children

How to work with kids at the Early Communicator or Partner stage:

Encourage Communication with Non-verbal Child

The best way to get your non-verbal child communicating is by giving them a reason to communicate. It is very tempting to ensure that your child has everything they need and that it is well within reach. However, if your child doesn’t have any difficulty getting what they want, then they don’t have any reason to communicate with you. Thus, you need to create situations that encourage communication.

Here are some suggestions to encourage children of all ages to communicate for a variety of reasons. Remember that not all of these communications need to be verbal. If your child communicates using sounds, gestures, facial expressions, or even pictures, then it counts as a communicative attempt. 

Help Your Child Make Requests

Here’s a video demonstrating these techniques

Place their favorite things out of reach

If you place your child’s favorite food or toy on a high shelf or countertop that they can see but cannot reach, then they are more likely to ask you for help so that they can get it. You can also place these items in a clear plastic container that is hard to open. Your child will be able to see what they want, but they will have to ask you for help to get it

Use people toys

These toys are hard to operate and encourage interaction because your child needs your help to make them work. Give your child time to look at the toy and step in when you see them becoming frustrated or when they ask for your help.

Wind-up and squeeze toys

Once you have wound up a toy or squeezed it to make it jump it will stop moving. Hand it to your child and wait for them to request that you make it move again 

Bubbles

Blow a few bubbles and then pause. Wait for your child to ask you to blow them again

Balloons

Blow up a balloon and let the air out, then put the balloon to your mouth and wait for your child to ask you to blow it up again

Music boxes

Wind up the music box and let the music play, then wait for your child to ask you to do it again once the music has stopped

Jack-in-the-box

Wind up the jack-in-the-box and let him pop out. Wait for your child to ask you to do it again

Mirrors

Mirrors are fantastic for playing peek-a-boo games and copycat games. You can play any game or sing any song in front of the mirror. Wait for your child to ask you to do any of the activities again, and encourage them to play copycat games with you

Offer things bit-by-bit

If you give your child everything they want all at once, then they won’t need to ask you for anything. By giving your non-verbal child things in small amounts, you are providing them with more opportunities to communicate their needs to you. Some toys, like Lego’s, are easy to give out bit-by-bit, as are snacks like raisins and potato chips.

Give all but one

Give your child all but one of the things they need for an activity. Hold it out of their reach, but in their view, and wait for them to ask you for it .

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Help Your Child Refuse or Tell You “No”

Communication with nonverbal child

Offer their least favorite things

Offer your child food, drink, or a toy that you know they do not like so that you give them the opportunity to say “no”

Let your child end the activity

Wait until your child gets bored with an activity and then let them tell you, through whatever mode of communication they prefer, that they have had enough

Help Your Child Learn to Greet and Say “Bye”

Puppets

Use puppets, stuffed animals or Legos

Use a puppet or a Lego Minifigure to demonstrate greeting and saying “bye” by repeating the action several times as you make the puppet appear and disappear behind your back, encouraging your child to say it with you and then on their own

Use your window

Stand at your window when you are expecting guests and wave at them and say “hi” as they walk up to your door. Encourage your child to do the same and then eventually to do it on their own. You can do this when the guest leaves as well

Encourage Your Child to Interact or Make Comments

Create predictable routines, then present a surprise

Adding a surprise to your daily routines encourages your child to react and to hopefully want to communicate about it

Keep quiet

Look through a book whilst pointing and naming pictures, then turn a page and point to a picture but don’t say anything, let your child name the picture. Let your child help you unpack the groceries and show great interest in the items, naming them as you take them out of the bag. When you come to your child’s favorite food, wait for them to get excited and name it

Offer something different

Play with toys that use multiple pieces, like puzzles, and pass your child each piece. Then give them something completely different (like a marble) and wait for them to react

Make mistakes “accidentally”

Children love it when their parents make mistakes and do something silly. You could put their shoes on their feet the wrong way or try and put their trousers over their heads whilst getting dressed. You can wait for your child to react and then laugh about it

When all is going smoothly, make something go wrong

A good idea is when you are eating dinner or breakfast, you can “accidentally” drop your fork on the floor and wait for your child to react or let you know

Pretend you don’t know where things are

You and your child can search for things together if you act like you don’t know where they are. Exaggerate your distress and wait for your child to react 

Pretend that you’re “broken”

Set situations up so that it looks like you are experiencing difficulty doing things. You could pretend that you don’t hear the doorbell ringing which gives your child an opportunity to get your attention and tell you what is going on

Help Your Child Make Choices

Choices

Start with easy choices

The easiest choice for your child to make is between two things that they can see. One must be something they really like and the other something that they dislike. Hold the choices up in front of them and at first, offer the favorite choice last. This is because children who are first learning to make choices often choose the last object presented. Once your child is experienced in making choices, you can offer the favorite choice first

Give visual cues

Your child will need visual cues to help them make choices at first. You can hold real objects, point to real objects, or point to pictures of real objects. Present these in the same way that you did for their easy choices and then increase the level of difficulty

Yes/No choices

This is the same method that you used for helping your child make easy choices, however, you now want to encourage them to verbalize. Hold up what they don’t want and encourage them to say “no.” If your child cannot answer, respond to them to show them what they should do and then try again. Do this with the item that they want as well

Speech Blubs was built for non-verbal children

Our app has plenty of vocabulary activities for your child to choose from, which encourages them to communicate intentionally by selecting what they would like to do and by working through the different situations in each of our “games.” By doing this, your child will learn and understand several familiar words and use them to initiate communication in new situations. 

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The kids on our app prompt your child when to speak, and because of the fun nature of our “games,” you’re likely to find your child requesting to play and responding to you in no time at all!

The app supports non-verbal children by allowing them to learn initially whilst observing the kids in the app. They can then begin to imitate the kids when they’re ready.

Remember, if you are unsure about why your child may be non-verbal or if they are having difficulty communicating, you can use our free screener by downloading our app. The screener will highlight your child’s strengths and weaknesses and we’ll even give you a personalized report and actionable advice with the results. You can download the app from the App Store or Google Play

You have an ally in Speech Blubs and our biggest success is seeing your child achieve their greatest potential.

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