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Nonverbal autism can be very difficult to treat, but current research has shown that, even after the age of four, children who have limited or no communication abilities can still learn language.

Many parents are told that if their child does not use communication by the ages 4 or 5, that they will never talk. A study that appeared in the journal, Pediatrics, looks at 500 cases and debunks this myth.

As a parent, I cannot imagine not being able to understand or communicate with my child. I empathize with anyone who is being given this diagnosis and feels like there is no hope. I wanted to give you 7 ways that you CAN help your child. I looked for inspiration at Autism Speaks; a website that devotes itself solely to providing information and resources to parents who have a child that is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Before reading these tips, I want you to remember that all individuals with autism spectrum disorder are vastly different and unique. Certain skills that are depressed in one individual, may be an area of strength for another.

Even though everyone can learn to communicate, it is not always through spoken language. Nonverbal individuals have the ability to live fulfilling lives and can contribute to society with the help of assistive technology. 

The Seven Ways to Teach Kids with Nonverbal Autism to Communicate

1. Encourage play and social interaction

Research has shown that children are more successful learning language when it is done through play-based activities. When you are engaged in cooperative and interactive play, it gives fun opportunities for your child to communicate. In order for this to occur, try using a variety of different games.

These can be items you already have at home! You can also do things that involve social turn-taking, such as singing songs, reciting nursery rhymes or just gentle rough-housing. Make sure, no matter what you are doing, that you are on the floor at eye level with the child! This way, your child can hear and see you easier, which makes engagement more fun! 

2. Imitate your child

When you imitate your child’s noises and play behaviors, it will encourage more productions, vocalizations and interaction across different environments.

Kids love to copy us, so this gives them a fun way to engage and see what mommy and daddy are doing! This can be done quite simply, for example, if your child builds a fort out of legos, you do the same thing. If they push a car around saying, vroom vroom, you do the same thing! 

3. Focus on nonverbal communication

Many times, it’s the subtle nonverbal communications that are overlooked. Eye contact and gestures are a child’s first steps towards communication and are the basic building blocks for language. One way to work on these areas is to exaggerate everything you are doing.

For example, if you are trying to get your child to nod “yes” or “no,” make sure you are doing the action along with your verbal communication. Studies have shown that pairing a movement with a word, aids in recall and generalization! If your child/baby makes a gesture, make sure you respond to it! This starts to teach them that if they do something, they get a response which is great for social/pragmatic language. 

4. Leave “space” for your child to talk

I get it – we are busy people and it’s very common to want to rush communication opportunities. If your child doesn’t immediately respond, make sure you take a breath, and give them a chance to think, formulate a response and actually communicate what they are thinking.

This is also important for your child with nonverbal autism. Allow them time to complete actions. It doesn’t have to be 5 minutes of waiting, but simply waiting 15-20 seconds allows a child to feel the power of language. 

5. Simplify your language

We tend to add a lot of language and directions into one sentence. This can be overwhelming for a small child’s processing and language centers of their brains. By simplifying our directions and communication message, this allows a child to easily follow what you are saying. This also allows for more opportunities for your child to imitate or repeat what you are saying. Speak in short phrases when you are completing tasks, such as “wash hands,” “brush teeth.” Once your child is consistently using phrases on their own, you can build to small sentences

6. Follow your child’s interests

This sort of goes along with suggestion number 5. Rather than interrupting your child’s focus, follow along with words. Talk about what your child is doing. For example, if your child is dumping Legos on the floor, make sure you say, “dump Lego.” If they are brushing their teeth, you can say “brushing teeth.”

7. Consider assistive devices and visual supports

Assistive technologies and visual supports can do more than take the place of speech. They can foster its development. These do not have to be high tech materials. You can have a sheet of paper with three or four pictures on it. Your child can point to pictures that they want.

If your child can successfully handle higher-tech devices, which usually involve electronics, the speech therapist can guide you in the right direction. For more guidance on using visual supports, see Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports Tool Kit.

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Talk to Your Speech Therapist

Before deciding on any specific devices that you want to choose for your child with nonverbal autism, talk to your child’s therapist. Certain devices are low-tech (like picture boards) and others require a lot of abilities to use (such as a Dynavox).

The device will also depend on your child’s ability to use their upper extremities and if they can follow multi-step directions. The therapist will be able to guide you in the right direction. Make sure you also being upfront and honest with the therapist. Tell them if things aren’t working or if your child seems confused. This will help them tailor therapy towards your child’s needs!  

You can also try out our Speech Blubs App for an additional language-rich practice with your little one. Many autism kids have already find great pleasure in speech practice with the app.

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