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.
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.