Nonverbal children with autism struggle with communication. According to a study conducted by Boston University, approximately 30 percent of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder use no spoken language or learn to speak only a few words.
Because people with ASD can’t tell us what they are thinking or share their thought processes, we need other ways to communicate with them. At Lexington Services, we find the following strategies can help nonverbal children with ASD develop their ability to communicate and, in the process, also improve their verbal skills.
Focus On Nonverbal Communication
Research tells us that children with autism may develop language at a later time than their peers. Words, however, are not the only means of communication. If your child uses no words or has a limited vocabulary, try these nonverbal communication methods:
- Use gestures such as nodding and pointing.
- Focus on eye contact.
- Use your body to help explain (i.e., clapping when something good happens or making a “frowny” face when something not so good occurs).
A lack of verbal skills doesn’t mean there has to be an impenetrable communication barrier. Using nonverbal forms of communication builds a way to “talk” with your child and, over time, can lead to higher degrees of speech while simultaneously developing important social skills.
Encourage Play And Social Interaction
Many experts on autism believe play therapy improves verbal communication skills. When children do activities that include using their hands, they often use gestures to describe the tactile experiences associated with those activities and eventually use words. Try these physical activities:
- Engaging in play with stuffed animals, dolls or action figures.
- Tickling their tummy or some gentle roughhousing.
- Sorting and matching games.
- Using play dough or “sensory slime.”
Another benefit to playing is it helps increase visual and motor skills while integrating communication building blocks. Whatever activities you choose, be sure to choose a few your child seems to enjoy. Most importantly, have fun!
Incorporate Music Or Dance
Music is a particularly good approach because many children learn their first words through songs. Songs with repetitive melodies, words and actions make it easier for children with ASD. After playing the song enough times, your child will know what’s coming next. So, try hitting the pause button to see what happens. There may come a time when your child speaks one of the expected words, sounds or phrases.
Imitation is a terrific way to have a “conversation” with your child because it leads to another form of communication. Start by copying your child’s actions. For instance, if your child loves dogs and likes to make “woof” sounds, do the same. If cars are a favorite toy, grab a car, get on the floor and make “vroom” sounds together. If your child builds a tower of blocks, do the same with your own stack of blocks.
Try to be at their eye level when interacting. This allows your child to see your mouth and hand movements more clearly. However, if you find your child has a hard time looking at you, try activities that keep you and your child face to face. This position helps your child see your facial expressions, which can help to bridge the communication gap. If this is too overwhelming, try getting down on the same physical level by laying on the floor or crouching down.
Through imitation, your child can learn to understand the back and forth that occurs in verbal communication, reinforcing their skills.
Allow Your Child To Learn How To Talk At Their Own Pace
When building language skills, it’s important your child sets the tone of communication by letting them choose the pace. This helps relieve the pressure and provides an opportunity to build language skills. These tactics can reduce their anxieties associated with communicating:
- Simplifying language (i.e., if your child picks up a doll, say “doll” or “hug”). Keeping it simple allows your child to absorb each word better. If your child uses one word, then you can try adding another (i.e., “hug dolly”).
- Following your child’s lead to keep their interest at a comfortable pace. For example, it’s important to keep in mind children with ASD often prefer to look at and analyze toys rather than play with them, so if your child points to a specific toy, try to follow their line of thought rather than push playing with it.
- Preparing your child for changes that will occur when it comes time to shift activities.
- Offering two options for decision-making. For instance, if your child cannot use words, present both options and ask their preference – they can point or use the left vs. right hand. The key is to emphasize there are two choices involved. More than two options could overwhelm them. Offering no options, so they have to come up with their own choice, is asking way too much of them.
Eventually, your child may have an easier time following simple sentences if you let them set the pace of learning. Don’t try to push too much at once because this could lead to overstimulation and have the opposite effect of what you want.
Using Visual Support And Assistive Devices
While some children with ASD have apraxia, (the inability to make the right movements while speaking), many do not. At this point, we still do not know why nonverbal children without a condition, such as apraxia, do not speak. It is increasingly believed children who are nonverbal understand far more than what they can communicate with words. Since nonverbal children cannot use words, many respond to alternate forms of communication. These assistive devices can help them to express themselves:
- Picture cards.
- American Sign Language.
- Digital tools such as iPads, apps and software.
While there is still much to be learned about nonverbal autism, research has produced effective communication strategies. These strategies, coupled with technology and other tools, can go a long way to help promote language development.
Verbal or nonverbal, it’s important to continue speaking to your child and include them in conversations. This will heighten a sense of inclusion and improve their understanding of communication. Chances are, it won’t happen quickly. However, with consistency and patience, your child can strengthen their skills by using alternate forms of communication.
If you’d like help with developing strategies that are specific to your child, Lexington Services can offer suggestions and help coordinate services to help build the bridge to stronger communication skills for your child.
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