Working With Non-Verbal Children Part 1: Stages of Communication

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. 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 children with autism and in other developmental disorders such as Down Syndrome.

If you are unsure about why your child may be non-verbal, you can make use of our free screener by downloading our app: App Store or Google Play.

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

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 communication 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

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.

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, 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

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,” 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.

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. 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

How Speech Blubs Can Help

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

If you believe that your child is non-verbal, then you can go on to read Part 2: Setting Communication Goals, which discusses what communication goals you can set for each of the four stages, as well as how the Speech Blubs app can assist you.

Remember, if you are unsure about why your child may be non-verbal or if they are having difficulty communicating, you can make use of 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.

“My two year old had it for less than a week and he’s already saying more”

Mariah C., Mom

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