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Becca Eisenberg
BY Becca Eisenberg

5 Ways to Encourage Communication with a Non Verbal Child Diagnosed with Autism

As a speech language pathologist, one of my greatest joys have been communicating and connecting with both children and adults with autism, specifically those who are nonverbal or minimally verbal. I have met countless individuals who are living in a silent world and have been waiting to be opened up so they could communicate and connect with others.

I have met struggling families who felt like they couldn’t connect with their child due to a variety of reasons. I think no one can understand the position of these families or individuals with autism unless you really live it. As a speech language pathologist, I feel lucky to have the skills to help these individuals begin to communicate their basic needs and wants via augmentative and alternative communication.

Today, I would like to share five helpful strategies that I use to help communicate and connect with those diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum that struggle with communication. These strategies can be used with both verbal, minimally verbal and nonverbal children and can be used anytime, whether you are at the dinner table or out in the community.

1. Enter into their world by using motivating people, items, etc. to encourage communication

For many children, food is motivating. For others, it could be specific toy, movie, friend, family member or neighbor.

For example, if your child loves interaction with a specific family member, use this motivating person to encourage communication. If you are using this person to encourage communication, use a variety of visual and auditory strategies (e.g. use a picture of the family member and/or model the name of this individual). Encourage your child to point to the picture of this person or exchange the picture with you to request it. When they are able to point or exchange the picture, the motivating person could come over to the child and give him or her a hug to fulfill the request.

To learn more information about using a picture exchange communication system, check out PECS USA.

2. Label feelings as they occur

For example, if your child is reaching for food in the fridge, label the feeling. For example, say “You are hungry”. The more your child hears the particular feeling with a specific behavior, the better they will be able to understand that feeling.

This strategy needs to be consistent and occur naturally. Modeling a feeling can happen when your child is excited, sad, hurt, happy, etc. For example, as your child expresses their excitement, say “I see you are excited”. If you have a picture of “excited” it can even reinforce the concept more. Learn more about using visuals here.

I have been working for months with a particular individual with this concept and he is now expressing that he is hungry, thirsty, sad, mad, etc via the communication app, Go Talk Now on the iPad. Expressing a feeling can be liberating and be an excellent way to connect.

3. Assume competence

Assuming competence is probably one of the most important things we can do as a parent, caregiver, therapist, teacher, etc. Assuming competence for any child whether they have a disability or not is a form of empowerment.

Assuming that your child CAN do it and WILL do it is powerful. The other concept is speaking to a child with Autism like any other child. Children with or without disabilities pick up very quickly when an adult or another child is speaking to them in a different way. This can be a strategy that can very helpful when telling others how to speak to your child.

4. Model Language and use Aided Language Stimulation

Modeling language is an excellent strategy. Many times a child may not know the specific word or structure of a sentence. For example, if your child wants water at the dinner table and indicates that to you in a way that you will understand, say “I want water.” Giving the model will help improve your child’s receptive and expressive language.

Adding a word such as “please” or in a question form can also provide clues to appropriate ways to ask for a particular item that can improve pragmatic language skills. Aided Language Stimulation (term coined by Carol Goossens) is a technique that can be extremely helpful during a variety of activities to help build language and communication.

5. Use a total communication approach using both unaided and aided communication

What is aided and unaided communication? Aided communication is anything other than your body that you use to communicate. This can be pictures, photographs, words, etc. Many children with autism who are not able to use speech for functional communication often use pictures, photographs, words and/or communication systems to express themselves.

Unaided communication is using your body to communicate (e.g. gestures, facial expressions, sign language, etc.). I often get asked if using pictures for communication is going to take away any gestures or speech that the person is using, and the answer is always no. The best way to communicate is with a total communication approach, which is includes all modes of communication. None of use communicate with just speech. Sometimes a friend or spouse can understand our message with a simple gesture or facial expression. Encourage all modes of communication whether unaided or aided.


Becca Eisenberg

Written on April 21, 2015 by:

Becca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist, author, instructor, and parent of two young children, who began her blog to create a resource for parents to help make mealtime an enriched learning experience. She discusses the benefits of reading to young children during mealtime, shares recipes with language tips and carryover activities, reviews children’s books for typical children and those with special needs as well as educational apps. She has worked for many years with both children and adults with developmental disabilities in a variety of settings including schools, day habilitation programs, home care and clinics. She can be reached at [email protected]
  • Cloud

    Please remember to include children who are nonverbal who are not autistic. That would be more inclusive wouldn’t it?

    • MommaT

      Hi there,
      A review of the meaning autism would be helpful to yourself. Being nonverbal, falls along the spectrum of autism, so therefore this article is inclusive one would think….

      • Jessica P

        Maybe you should do some review, not all people that are nonverbal have autism. I agree with Cloud. But the fact is that there are a lot of resources and information for autism but people with other disabilities can benefit from the same information available to them.

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  • dad to three

    I did not see mention of sign language. Many have found it an excellent and effective path to verbal speech. The notion that sign inhibits speech is unfounded. Signing worked for our son and as his speech emerged the signing faded. It also almost immediately helped reduce anxiety due to communication frustration.

    • ablonc8

      She briefly mentioned sign language in number 5, although it would’ve been helpful if additional details were added. I have a 5yr old son who is nonverbal and autistic and oddly his speech therapist at school pushes Pecs but not sign language…that never sat well with me. I agree, as parents we need to question the ‘experts’

      • dad to three

        Now that you point it out I do see it mentioned, in (parentheses.) I read that story 3 times looking for some mention of sign and missed it. IMHO sign language should have a bullet. Try signing at home and see how it works. There are great tutorials online that video model signs. The Mom pictured is signing “more.” Hungry, thirsty, in, out, bathroom, thank you, are all easy and a good start. Get the ball rolling and then try and get the school aboard. So any “Professionals” are stuck in their personal “methods” that have evolved since they graduated. SLP’s think speech, not sign. And again, signing does not inhibit speech, always model the word with the sign and hopefully you can fade the sign, worked for us. Our son is far from normal verbal, but at 20 he can make himself understood for his basic needs and then he uses the iPad for higher levels of communication.

        • SLJ

          She is signing “leaf”, not “more”, unless the picture has changed.

      • angelhart2

        One reason signing isn’t used as frequently is that not everyone knows sign language. A child in school can walk up to anyone and show them a picture of what they need, and the person can understand them. However not everyone is going to understand what her signs mean. Same goes for being out in the real world, a clerk in a store can understand a picture but probably won’t understand sign language.

  • dad to three

    This is an excellent example of an “expert” with a Masters Degree completely missing an important piece of the solution, even to the point of having it pictured and then not noting it in her ” five helpful strategies.” This is why parents MUST question these experts, get second opinions and do our own homework.

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  • I think communication has been assumed as language here. But communication is much more than words or sign language. it’s about encouraging reciprocity, emotional sharing and developing intrinsic motivation for the same.

    I would like to present my friend’s point of view on the same. She is an autism specialist and runs a centre here in India:

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  • ashley

    Oh thank you!!! The tips are like blessings and they do work!! God bless you for having such a kind, communicative and understanding heart. You have helped heal a family in ways you can’t imagine :^) <3 !!!

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  • Hope Jones

    I need to say your tips are wonderful but my eightyear old will still not speak…He did speak until the age of four then stopped…He was diagnosed with autism at three…He is in the stars program in his school and has wonderful therapists but understands most things except basics…He uses his tablet not i pad for communication cause the program for i pad is too expensive..Anymore tips I would love them

    • Lorna

      The software for the ipad should be paid by your school district.

    • Mandy Crawford

      ABA therapy and individual behavioral supports on a weekly basis.


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