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Encouraging Communication in Children

Tips for Connecting With Children Who Are Nonverbal

In childhood, you learn that communication is the key to developing satisfying relationships. Communication is also how people express themselves; it’s how they relay thoughts, feelings, fears, needs and wants. So, what happens to communication when a child is nonverbal? Being nonverbal is often associated with autism, but it’s a condition that can accompany other types of special needs including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and some learning disabilities. A nonverbal person’s lack of speech can have a significant effect on the way they interact with family, friends and caregivers.

Here are some things to know about how to understand and connect with children and adolescents who are nonverbal.

Nonverbal Communication Is Still Communication

Most children who are nonverbal will learn how to communicate in some way, but it might not always be through spoken language. It’s important to remember that even though a child might not be able to speak, nonverbal communication (such as body language, facial expressions, writing or motioning) is still communication. And because every child is unique, it might take parents, teachers and caregivers a long time to determine which strategies work best for each child who is nonverbal. Some communication strategies include visual supports like picture books and flashcards and assistive technologies.

Some Children Eventually Develop Language

Promoting language development in children who are nonverbal is something parents, teachers and caregivers strive to do each and every day. The good news is, recent research offers a number of effective strategies that are giving hope to families everywhere. The strategies can be complicated and extensive, but below are simplified versions of a few that might be helpful.

  1. Use simple language. It’s important to speak in a way that your child can understand. Autism Speaks suggests using the “one up rule.” For example, if your child is completely nonverbal, try using one word at a time. Instead of calling something an “apple tree” simply call it a “tree.” When playing with a ball, simply say words like “ball” or “roll” as you’re rolling the ball. If your child is able to speak in one word phrases, then you should try two word phrases like “roll ball” or “throw ball.” This strategy helps children who are nonverbal push harder, but at a pace that works for them.
  2. Leave space for communication. When you’re speaking with a friend or colleague, and the conversation naturally dies down, do you quickly think of something else to say just to fill the silence? Although it may ease the awkwardness, it’s very important not to do that when communicating with a child who is nonverbal. When you notice your child wants something, or after you ask a question, pause for a bit and look expectantly at the child. Watch for sounds or body movements, and then respond right away. The fact that you responded so quickly to your child’s style of communication will help them understand the back and forth nature of communication.
  3. Find simple ways to enjoy your child’s company. Some parents of autistic children or children who are nonverbal find themselves searching for clues as to who their children are, what they need, and how to help them. It’s important to find simple, fun ways to connect with your child and really enjoy their company. When you relax, your child relaxes, and that can go a long way toward making a communication breakthrough. The safer and more comfortable your child feels with you, the easier it will be for them to communicate. Who knows, you might just find answers where you least expect them.

Playtime Is Important

All children, but especially children who are nonverbal, learn a lot through play. Some children even learn a lot of their language skills while playing with other kids. Finding interactive ways for your child to play is a great way to encourage language progression. Again, there are many theories on how to go about this, but here are some we think are worth looking at closely.

  1. Focus on activities that encourage social interaction. Activities like singing, dancing, reciting nursery rhymes, physical games and even gentle roughhousing can promote communication. Playing with a variety of toys, like hula hoops, marbles, water beads, play dough, bean bags, Legos and dolls can help prevent the child from fixating on one specific toy.
  2. Tactile experiences are important too. Make sure your child has the opportunity to play with a variety of toys like balls, play dough and blocks, all with different textures, shapes and colors. Make playing an interactive, educational experience by using a variety of colors and reviewing the color names as you play. Staying close to your child during play time can help them focus in case their minds start to wander.
  3. Try imitation games and cause-and-effect toys. Imitation is a type of social play that isn’t very complex. Asking a child who is nonverbal to engage in imitation play like Simon Says can be a great way for them to socialize and build communication skills. Cause and effect toys are also important because they teach a child that when they do something, it causes a reaction. This helps create a positive sense of self awareness, and helps motivate the child to “cause” the “effect” again and again.

If you are a parent or caregiver struggling to communicate with a child who is nonverbal, be sure to talk with your care provider to see if they might have strategies or suggestions you haven’t tried yet. With any strategy, it is important to remain calm and patient. Children who are nonverbal, especially autistic children, are like sponges, soaking in and subsequently mirroring the emotions and moods of those around them. The more stressed and anxious a parent becomes, the more stressed out the child will be, and the more difficult any type of communication will become. But when parents learn to calm themselves first, it can do wonders for them and the child.

Communicating with a child who is nonverbal takes commitment, flexibility, persistence and patience and it’s important for parents and caregivers to trust their intuition. As parents and caregivers become calmer, their intuitions will start to kick in and help them see how their child is communicating