23 Ways To Communicate With A Non-Verbal Child

Non-Verbal Communication

“Just because a person can’t speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.” A very important reminder from a parent of a non-verbal child.

Communication is a basic human need, allowing people to connect with others, make decisions that affect their lives, express feelings and feel part of the community they live in.

People with little or no speech still have the same communication needs as the rest of us.  We may just have to work a bit harder to find a communication strategy that works.

Netbuddy - Special Needs ResourcesThe following tips have been contributed to Netbuddy by parents of children and adults with special needs. We hope you will find them useful, and please do share your own!

1. Make it mean something

Katie can clap her hands so we have taught her to clap when she wants to say yes.

2. Level it up

Playing and talking are easier if you can see each other. Sit so you are at the same level.

3. Talk about it

Eddy can’t speak and also has limited understanding but it is important to keep talking to him about what’s going on.

4. Eye contact

I put stickers on my forehead as a target for my son to look at.  This reminds him to look at people’s faces, so people feel more like he is engaging with them.

5. It has meaning – it’s just not obvious

We treat every non-verbal indication as a communication and try to work out what Gaby is trying to say to us.

6. Use mirrors

If looking directly into your eyes is too invasive for the person you’re supporting, try using mirrors to see if they can look at you that way.

7. Do you want X or Y?

When I am out and about with my non-verbal son, I say ‘do you want X’ (tapping my hand in one spot) ‘or Y’ (tapping my hand in another). He then selects a spot. We use it for all sorts of communication now – not just choices.

8. Find other means of expression

Give your child an opportunity to express themselves. Dance, music, drawing, painting, messing with textures, banging drums, shaking maracas – and join in too. Don’t be afraid to lay down with them on the carpet and see the world from their point of view.

9. It’s not obvious

Therapist often ask you to keep eye contact with them.  We (Aspies – people with Aspergers syndrome) often avoid eye contact because it helps us to focus on what someone is saying.  I find it hard to process verbal information and think about signals from someone’s face at the same time.

10. Puppets and singing

Often children on the autistic spectrum do not communicate with other people or make eye contact. Yet they can, and do, communicate – often verbally – with a puppet or even their pets. Some children find singing a delight and can sing wonderfully even though they use very little verbal communication. Use these strengths as an aid to interaction.

11. Create social stories

I have been creating my own social stories using pictures of my son and clip art pictures. You can find images of most things through Microsoft Office and easily type up your own personalised stories.

12. Make ‘flash cards’

Take photos of a non verbal person’s favorite toys, family members, objects eg cup, biscuit etc. Choose the most motivating items to begin with. Print and laminate them postcard size. Giving a choice of no more than three cards at a time, encourage them to choose by pointing or touching. May also be helpful to put the relevant sign on the back of photo as a reference for others

13. Carry a surprise card

If you have a child with Autism or Asperger’s, it’s worth carrying a ‘surprise’ card with you for unplanned situations (like unannounced fire drills). On the card, have a surprise symbol (an exclamation mark) & ‘SURPRISE! we are going to x, y, z’ (your child’s favorite place).

14. Instant mobile photo’s

Don’t forget to make best use of your mobile (if it has a camera) – it’s a fabulous instant device to use as a photo communication tool.

15. Makaton

My top tip is Makaton sign language! We are so glad we taught Zoe to use Makaton. Although she can’t yet say any words, signing relieves any frustration no end – she can tell us what she wants, and the signs we use help her understand what we say. It takes a while but it’s really worth sticking with.

16. Objects of reference

Objects of reference are a great way of helping people with profound learning disabilities and/or other sensory impairments to understand the world around them. Use an object to symbolize the activity they are about to participate in, eg a fork for dinner, towel for bath.

17. Proloquo2Go

If you need a communication aid and you’re having problems finding something that your son or daughter finds socially acceptable, try an iTouch with Proloquo2Go 

18. Word bubbles

Carrie likes cartoons.  We cottoned on to the idea that we could use them.  We use cartoons with speech bubbles to make information more accessible for her.

19. Communication passports

A communication passport is a one page document that the child has with him or her all of the time. It gives the people they meet basic information about how they communicate and what support they need. You can find out more about communication passports at www.communicationpassports.org.uk

20. Communication books & charts

Some children can learn to make choices by pointing to a symbol and or word in a communication book or on a communication chart. They might be able to point with a fist or a finger or they might be able to point with their eyes or with a head pointer. There are tips on making communication books and boards and a sample eye pointing board that you can print out at: contactcandle.co.uk

21. Communi-bands

My son has a diagnosis of severe atheoid quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is non-verbal. We established his yes/no response by using Communi-bands – tap/wave/lift/move arm with green “yes” wristband or arm with red “no” wristband. This makes it clear for everyone to understand. Communi-bands are available from www.thegreencrab.com

22. Personal portfolio

Cerebra provides a free service to help parents create a personal portfolio for their child aged 16 and under. A personal portfolio is a user-friendly booklet about your child to introduce them to others. It is especially helpful when your child has communication difficulties. Very useful for teachers & professionals. www.cerebra.org.uk

23. Intensive Interaction

I have two children on the spectrum, aged 7 & 5. Intensive Interaction helped me stay sane and unlocked the barriers so I could communicate with them. www.intensiveinteraction.co.uk

How do you communicate with your non-verbal child?

Emma Sterland

Written on 2013/04/16 by:

Emma Sterland

Emma Sterland is the website manager of www.netbuddy.org.uk, a practical tip-swapping site and online community for parents, carers and special needs professionals. All the tips contributed to the site are from people with first-hand experience of special needs, and are organised by topic. New tips are always welcome!
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  • Casey DePriest

    I’m concerned like others that this list does not include typing! Many non-verbal and non-reliably verbal individuals are drastically misunderstood and able to access only very limited communication without physical support. I highly recommend parents and teachers and therapists of students with autism to explore research related to the movement differences and neurologic connectivity issues in autism. This leads to much better understanding of why these kids are unable to speak or they speak in looped or echolalic speech patterns, and why they may have difficulty with initiation and inhibition of movement, and why they tend to get stuck in movements or postures, etc. Facilitated communication is rooted in controversy but in my experience, when students have the opportunity to learn from a highly trained facilitator and the team for the student is committed to following the specific training protocols, FC can change a student’s life! Understanding how to help the student bridge the brain-body disconnect is so important too! I’ve seen teen students who were documented to be functioning “below pre-K” transition to and ace general ed classes once they found their voice through facilitated communication and received sensory and movement support to help their disorganized bodies become more functional. Visit http://www.facebook.com/OptimalRhythms to see a successful program in action!