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
Subscribe for a free ebook
Meltdown Management
Join the current subscribers
  • http://www.facebook.com/harold.rongey Harold Rongey

    The excitement of a parent when they find a way to be able to communicate with a child that is non-verbal is a blessing indeed. I suggest that an additional way to find that enjoyment has been acknowledged by some parents that have taken a close look at the child’s diet. More than 90% of those experiencing autism and the related symptoms including non-verbal, have found help by ensuring the diet contains the nutrients needed for proper development. This is easily provided with the added nutritional equivalent of one or two regular eggs daily or even egg yolks. This will ensure adequate fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and cholesterol when comparing the nutrients found in healthy brains. While this alone will not fix the problem, it will provide what is needed for the benefits of speech therapy to be much more effective in development of speech. This has been confirmed in several cases within 3-6 months. For more info on this see the web articles posted at http://www.whostolemyfood.com

  • Diane

    Loved this article, which reminds us that communication is different from speech.
    If you are working with a child who is developing sign language, I found an app that is helpful for individuals with autism and other developmental challenges. It is called the Sign to Talk, Nouns and Verbs app for shaping verbal behavior. Not only does it give you a static photo of the verb or noun, it gives you a video for the sign. Signs are a great way to bridge the gap, and gives us one more way to connect and communicate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.harris.33633 Sarah Harris

    fantastic article ! will try and get on the intensive interaction course !

  • Kristen

    I work with children with special needs and we use the Proloquo2go app a lot!! Life saver!

  • Kate Blue

    From a mom of a deaf child (with cochlear implants) who has verbal apraxia, I found # 4 to be a great tip! Why didn’t I think of that???!!! We will start using this to work on his eye contact with others-thank you!!!

  • Pingback: How to Communicate with a Nonverbal Child #Autism

  • Leah

    This post is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!

  • KAT TALENS

    thanks for sharing this

  • Jess

    Thanks for this I work in the disability industry with children it has help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/simon.h.maynard Simon Hugh Villiers Maynard

    This is a comment on an interaction I had recently at the swimming pool with someone who had no perceptible speech, the taxi driver and swimming pool attendants were talking to each other about how to solve the problem that they didn’t know how he was getting home. They didn’t say ONE WORD to him, and I could see he was getting more stressed, making sounds and biting his hands. I listened to what the staff and driver were saying and they had a solution and were ringing someone but they were all shutting him out. I just walked up and spoke quietly and slowly told him it was ok, they were sorting it out and he was going to be ok. He listened to me and quietened down and waited (and stopped biting his hand which I recognised was a sign of distresss Why did not ONE of the three of them talk to HIM, tell him it was going to be ok? Just because someone can’t speak doesn’t always mean they can’t understand speech. Grrr, it made me so angry.Thanks for this page

    • fygfyyh

      nice beard,i want you your hot

      • scholar1234

        you’re… *sigh

  • http://www.facebook.com/april.choulat April Choulat

    Such a helpful article! I’ve heard Intensive Interaction is very helpful for nonverbal individuals, relationship-based approaches are definitely the way to go.

  • Kaysha

    Some non verbal people can type very well. It’s worth giving it a go.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessdinkelacker Jessica Jones Dinkelacker

    Phenomenal! I am linking this to my article on dealing with non-verbal children. Thank you for your amazing ideas! http://www.DefyingTheSpectrum.com

  • Mrsteachern

    Also take a look at Touch Chat which can be used with an Ipad. We find it a bit more user friendly than the proloquo2go.

  • Annie

    As an Art teacher, I see a variety of students daily. Many of these techniques also work great for people on the spectrum that are verbal. I have used the sticker on my forehead before for a student. I would say his name and the word sticker when I needed to see his face and he needed to see the artworks being shown. I knew he was listening and paying attention even though he wasn’t always looking at me. It also worked well outside of the classroom.

  • http://twitter.com/tapgram Tapgram

    This is a great article.. I also want to add #24 Tapgram.com.. Its a free web-based tool that’s great for non-verbal kids.. Allows them to send and recieve picture messages.

  • http://www.autismbrainstorm.org/ Michael Leventhal

    I have learned that incremental exposure to technology-based instruction is beneficial in numerous ways other than helping pre, selective and non-verbal students express needs and wants. Because children inherently enjoy engaging with tech, it can be used to extend periods of personal interaction, as a reward for increasing the ability to delay gratification, as a means of increasing self-awareness which is essential for higher language skills. The most dramatic results of using tech is the emotional reaction of children who have given up…. disengaged from their environment out of confusion or frustration. The moment they discover that the mouse, keyboard or touch screen can be used to obtain something they want, they will attempt to control that tool. This is a meta-cognitive leap that reopens closed doors and improves the likelihood of further personal development.

    I will be addressing this issue in Pensacola this May. I will certainly reference your article is most appropriate to the content of my presentation.

    • Dawn

      Hi I have an unusual, but interesting child who is very aware of his surroundings but is still very much learning to communicate. I am interested in your thoughts and ideas. I am aware of a few ways to try to help aid him. And one thing I have very much seen is button touch he loves to do.along with clap for yes etc. but I would love to help him find any other ways to communicate. My email is ddonaldson2@hotmail.co.uk. If you have some spare time to toss a few ideas ?

    • fygfyyh

      heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

  • http://profiles.google.com/dkstevenson1 Dana K. Stevenson

    Looking for the comparable US resources! Thanks!

  • Pingback: How Can My Non-Ambulatory and Non-Verbal Child Communicate? | Bringing Hope to CDKL5

  • Pingback: 23 Ways to Communicate With A Non-Verbal Child | Adventure of Yasin

  • fygfyyh

    hey

  • fygfyyh

    i like you

  • fygfyyh

    bummmmmmmsss

  • fygfyyh

    heheheehehe

  • fygfyyh

    i hate you sir!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jennifer Benedik

    My first question (as a speech pathologist myself) was why not use ASL signs instead of Makaton? I had never heard of it before. Then I did my research, and was pleased to learn that it was created by a speech pathologist and two members of the Royal Association for Deaf people.
    Great article!

    • Lucy

      I am assuming the use of makaton is because it is key word signing (noly signing the main point) bot using the whole grammer of ASL. Therefore it is easier to learn and easier as you still verbally speak with english grammer, while just signing the main point. We use makaton (and now key concepts) in Australia and find the signs are very similar / the same as Auslan (australian language of the deaf).

  • Chew Hing Yoong

    Thank you so much for such helpful tips. I’ve a teenager grandson who is non-verbal and I’m going to use all your tips to communicate with him when I see him next. Thank you for your work in this area of educating parents and care-givers.

  • http://candoyoga.kickoffpages.com/ CanDo Yoga

    #21 – Looking forward to making some Communi-bands! Great idea and great post.

  • Kit

    Ask the question with the response in it. Give me a thumbs up if you want to watch looney tunes! Instead of do you want to watch looney tunes? Give me a tap. (no) iif you do not want to go outside. My daughter has some motor planning issues and a physical response is sometimes too hard to think of on her own while considering the question as well.

  • Dimity

    I’m going to try #4 with my grandson, but he may try to pull it off, his 2yrs old and has Angelman syndrome

  • SunriseGuidedVisual

    This is one of the most valuable articles I’ve ever read! Thank you! Everyone knows someone who is non-verbal…. or who has become non-verbal.

  • Mary Brown

    I can’t believe that, out of 23 suggestions, none involve TYPING!! Our non-verbal kids can truly express themselves, not just with signs or line drawings, but with glorious words! There are many ways to start, using letter boards, stencils, cut up pieces of paper. The Rapid Prompting Method and Facilitated Communication each have protocols to get students pointing and typing. My autistic teen is non-verbal, but he types on an iPad or computer, and is an excellent student; he wants to be a writer when he gets older. We can really ‘get’ his personality and humor through his words. I believe that many, if not MOST, kids with autism have at least average intelligence and are capable of typing. A line drawing is often ambiguous, and many severely autistic people have movement problems that preclude signing. WORDS, GLORIOUS WORDS are within their reach, and have no ambiguity! Presume intelligence, and go for it!

    • Laura

      Yes. Amanda Baggs is a nonverbal autistic adult who blogs about issues in the autism and disability world. Because she’s been labeled “low-functioning” and has various other disabilities, people often don’t consider her needs and wants. She uses a text-to-speech communication device like Stephen Hawking does.

  • Di

    Does anyone no the non verbal girl that has wrote a couple of books ? All I no is that one day she got her dads laptop and started to communicate with it ? And has now wrote a book ? I’m looking for the name of the book

    • Rosemary Shynovick

      Carly fleishmann is her name i am not sure if i spelled her last name right. But i am reading carly voice right now written by her dad and i am learning alot from her.

  • Margarita

    Great article, thanks so much! Another app that works really well for non-verbal kids is My Words. worth trying, costs $10. here’s a link to it in the itunes store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/my-words/id427483246?mt=8

  • Pingback: Nonverbal Kids - 3 Ways Technology Improves Communication - Speech Buddies Blog - Autism and iPads

  • brandi

    I worked as a staff for people w/disabilities, many could not verbally speak. I had, had trouble speaking, & now am considered to probably have had Autism, although now I most likely have Aspergers. I knew how it felt when people talked about me in front of me. I struggled to be understood, so I was surprised when at a job where people were considered unable to speak, or. communicate, I understood them better than most people I’d know my whole life, & they understood me. We helped each other greatly, & I was confused why others had to call me to find out what they were trying to say. I’m very glad that so many ways to communicate are listed. From my experience, negative behavior is far too often a cry to be heard. Hopefully more people will learn & make a great effort to have a conversation w/someone is communicates differently. It is worth the effort, & time to make a new friend.

  • heaaa

    I don’t see anything about ASL (American Sign Language) on here! This is quite simply a wonderful resource that gets overlooked all the time.

    • CrisS

      I absolutely agree. I use ASL with my non-verbal son (who is also deaf in one ear), but his school is insisting on him using PECs because no one there knows ASL. They feel that he’ll be able to communicate better and with more people using PECs. I can’t disagree more. I don’t mind them using PECs, as the more ways a child has/knows to communicate, the better, but for long term, and practicality, we are mainly using ASL at home. It’s portable and immediately available (as opposed to finding the right pictures in the moment). Learning ASL has greatly reduced my son’s frustration level as he has an immediate way to express himself now. I think special needs educators and aides should be required to learn at least basic ASL. It is a real language that is fairly easy and fun to learn. I do hope that is becomes more mainstream now that it is being offered in colleges as a viable option to satisfy the foreign language requirement.

      • heaaa

        I am a native ASL user myself, and can completely relate to your frustration. It is your right to request (or demand!) ASL support for your child in school, especially if it decreases frustration like you said. This should be included in their IEP plan, and followed through. I wonder if you can find someone to help advocate or help consult on this issue?

        • CrisS

          Thanks for responding. I am getting SELPA involved.

      • Dolores Joy

        Yes, heaaa is correct. Because your child is deaf (at all, even just in one ear!) your child has a RIGHT to deaf education and ASL services. My daughter has is only minimally hard of hearing and just even for that we were allowed to enroll her in a regional day school for the deaf where they do total communication (speak and sign everything) ASL. Our options were that or deaf school as in deaf boarding school. I didn’t even know my tiny town had a deaf day school as it is a program inside one of the public schools and people just dont know about it… well it turns out they have to have one that is accessible to your child or bus them to the nearest one. It’s just the law. And yes, like I said, she only has minimal deafness, but the reason I have her there is she is 5, nonverbal due to severe speech apraxia so we do ASL at home…we have chosen deaf culture for her and life is so easy for her since we got her into deaf school, push the issue, speak to a special education rights advocate, contact a deaf group in your area to find the resources (they often volunteer at the deaf schools or attend functions there and every single person at the deaf chat I attend already knew my daughter from her school even though I had never met them) and speak to a education lawyer that does special education.

        • CrisS

          Thank you for the encouragement and ideas. It gives me the courage I need to take action. I’m writing an email tonight to SELPA.

  • Pingback: Thoughts | autismandartichokes

  • Jeanette Irene Davis Mills

    thanks soooooooooo

    much for sharing Im so thankful for these posts thank u thank u thank u

  • Jaci Wiley

    I created Chat Books for my kids. Might be like celebra above. Each page has a pic or drawing or object (leaf, fur, flattish small toy, cut out from magazine, found object, etc) and a very short explanation of why it’s there, written from child’s perspective. Pages include What I Like, What I Did, Who I Am/Family Are/Pets Are, Where I Went/Want To Go, Why It’s So, How I Did/Do. The object is for the book to provide topics of small talk for the people who communicate with yhe non-verbal person. Yoralla in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, introduced me to the idea.

  • LandGMom

    We use rudimentary sign language and some pictures. He prefers sign language but uses pictures for selecting from a field of choices, like what movie he wants to watch. He does not like ProloQuo2Go or PECS in general.

    • CrisS

      Same with my son. He’s not a fan of ProloQuo2Go or PECS. He definitely shows a preference for ASL.

  • Pingback: Ten Of The Very Best Blogs About Inclusive Education

  • Pingback: In the News – August 2013 | The PsychoJenic Archives

  • Pingback: You can get there from here... - Chasing the Spring

  • Pingback: Communicating with a Non-Verbal Child | Class Inc.