Tips for communicating with a Non-Verbal Child

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We live in a society that uses spoken and written language for the bulk of our everyday communication with each other. We express our thoughts, feelings, and desires through spoken language and are able to understand others by listening to the language others use. However, communicating with a non-verbal child is not as straightforward.

We often see children who are non-verbal or have limited speech. While the lack of language may make it seem impossible to understand and communicate with these children, working with them helped us to see that communication is more than just words and language.  

Communication comes in two branches: expressive and receptive. Expressive communication involves the ways in which the person uses language to express him or herself, otherwise considered as an “output”. Receptive communication, on the other hand, involves the ways in which a person receives and understands a message; it focuses on the input and processing of messages to communicate. 

We often focus on spoken and written language so much so that we forget that communication can be in non-verbal forms as well. Some non-verbal forms of communication include:

  • Body language: eye contact, body posture and facing, facial expressions
  • Natural gestures: pushing away, nodding, shaking head, pointing, showing, touching
  • Visual communication: Picture Exchange Communication System (PECs), Aided Language Stimulation (ALS) boards, drawing, writing

With this in mind, here are 4 tips on working and communicating with a child who is non-verbal or has very limited speech. 

4 Tips on Communicating with a Non-Verbal Child

1. Imitate the child’s play

Play is an important part of a child’s life. Through play, our children learn language and social skills such as imitation, cooperation, social scripts, social and contextual cues, pretend play, parallel play skills, observation skills, etc. Through play, you can create positive relationships while discovering your child’s:

  • Interests
  • Preferred way of communication 
  • Length of attention span
  • Processing ability
  • Conceptual understanding

Imitation shows likeness between two people and shared attention for something in common. When someone copies us, it encourages us to respond back by imitating more of the same action, word, or sequence. Thus, imitating a non-verbal child’s play becomes one of the best ways to connect without language, yet the shared experience allows the adult and the child to understand each other better. Through play and imitation, communication becomes fun and positive.

2. Do not omit language totally; instead, repeat core words

Not omitting language encourages expressive communication in the long run, even if we are working with children who are currently non-verbal or have limited speech. Especially if the child is still very young, the lack of verbal output could be due to delays in language development. Therefore, using language with your non-verbal child is still beneficial. The key is, however, to use more core words. Core words are common words that we use in high frequency (70-90%) in our daily lives. 

Babies and toddlers pick up language by listening repeatedly to their parents and people around them even before they start to talk. Through listening, they then start to imitate words to seek attention, request, and express their thoughts and feelings, e.g. “mum mum” for “I am hungry”, “ba” when asking for a toy ball, and so on. The rule of thumb is that the more a word is being used and repeated, the more frequently the child hears it, and the more he or she is likely to imitate the sounds, resulting in a verbal output. 

The same principle works for our children who are non-verbal. The difference lies in that while they may not imitate speech as successfully as a neurotypical child, the more frequently they hear a particular word, the more likely they will be able to learn and understand the meaning of that word receptively. For example, if we repeat the word “eat” enough times at different mealtimes and with food options, the child will know the meaning of “eat”, although he/she may not know how to write, spell or speak it, but they will respond appropriately when you say that word. Hence, repetition of core words can also help develop receptive communication in non-verbal children.

3. Use visual and assistive communication supports

Using visual supports involving photos and symbols expands the range of communication without limiting communication to the child’s current literacy level. Choice boards, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Aided Language Stimulation (ALS) boards, and speech output devices such as Proloquo2go and TouchChat are just some of the available assistive supports to help your child communicate. 

Choice boards, in particular, can aid the comprehension of options. When options are presented to children verbally, e.g. “Do you want an apple or an orange?”, the spoken message “disappears” very quickly and does not allow the child enough time to process his/her options. A choice board gives the child more time to process the options available before responding.

Choice board used to communicated with non-verbal child.
A choice board used for a non-verbal 6 year old student. A choice board differs from a visual schedule. A schedule shows the sequence of events, while a choice board offers options and enables the student to make a decision.

4. Give space, allow processing time, and wait

Often as adults, we react too fast and may unintentionally dampen our children’s desire to communicate with us. We often “put words in their mouth” when we make assumptions as to what our children want to express. For instance, a child getting off the chair, may not always indicate that he does not want to do a task anymore. It could be just that he needs a break, or want to take something to show you.

Therefore, we need to give our children enough time so they can process the environmental stimuli and choose a way that he/she is most comfortable to communicate with. This may mean waiting for at least 5-7 seconds before “putting words in their mouth”. When we allow them time, the communication that comes from it, be it verbal or non-verbal, is usually more accurate and reflects the true intentions of our children’s communication.

Read more on communicating and teaching to a non-verbal child here: Teaching a Child with Selective Mutism. Media and Partners

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