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.
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:
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:
If you’d like to learn more about communication and how complex it can be, watch this video.
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!
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Get personalized feedback on your child’s speech progress.
For more information, guidance, and techniques on how to work with your non-verbal child at the Own Agenda stage watch this video:
This video will tell you how to work with a child at the Requester Stage:
How to work with kids at the Early Communicator or Partner stage:
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.
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
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.
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
Blow a few bubbles and then pause. Wait for your child to ask you to blow them again
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
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
Wind up the jack-in-the-box and let him pop out. Wait for your child to ask you to do it again
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
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 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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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”
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
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
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
Adding a surprise to your daily routines encourages your child to react and to hopefully want to communicate about it
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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