Teaching nonverbal autistic
children to talk
For good reason, families, teachers and others want to know how they can promote
language development in nonverbal children or teenagers with autism. The good news
is that research has produced a number of effective strategies.
But before we share our “top tips,” it’s important to remember that each person with
autism is unique. Even with tremendous effort, a strategy that works well with one
child or teenager may not work with another. And even though every person with
autism can learn to communicate, it’s not always through spoken language. Nonverbal
individuals with autism have much to contribute to society and can live fulfilling lives
with the help of visual supports and assistive technologies.
Here are our top seven strategies for
promoting language development in nonverbal
children and adolescents with autism:
1. Encourage play and social interaction. Children learn through play, and that includes
learning language. Interactive play provides enjoyable opportunities for you and your child to
communicate. Try a variety of games to find those your child enjoys. Also try playful activities
that promote social interaction. Examples include singing, reciting nursery rhymes and gentle
roughhousing. During your interactions, position yourself in front of your child and close to
eye level – so it’s easier for your child to see and hear you.
2. Imitate your child. Mimicking your child’s sounds and play behaviors will encourage more
vocalizing and interaction. It also encourages your child to copy you and take turns. Make
sure you imitate how your child is playing – so long as it’s a positive behavior. For example,
when your child rolls a car, you roll a car. If he or she crashes the car, you crash yours too.
But don’t imitate throwing the car!
3. Focus on nonverbal communication. Gestures and eye contact can build a foundation for
language. Encourage your child by modeling and responding these behaviors. Exaggerate
your gestures. Use both your body and your voice when communicating – for example, by
extending your hand to point when you say “look” and nodding your head when you say
“yes.” Use gestures that are easy for your child to imitate. Examples include clapping,
opening hands, reaching out arms, etc. Respond to your child’s gestures: When she looks at
or points to a toy, hand it to her or take the cue for you to play with it. Similarly, point to a
toy you want before picking it up.
4. Leave “space” for your child to talk. It’s natural to feel the urge to fill in language when a
child doesn’t immediately respond. But it’s so important to give your child lots of
opportunities to communicate, even if he isn’t talking. When you ask a question or see that
your child wants something, pause for several seconds while looking at him expectantly.
Watch for any sound or body movement and respond promptly. The promptness of your
response helps your child feel the power of communication.
5. Simplify your language. Doing so helps your child follow what you’re saying. It also makes it
easier for her to imitate your speech. If your child is nonverbal, try speaking mostly in single
words. (If she’s playing with a ball, you say “ball” or “roll.”) If your child is speaking single
words, up the ante. Speak in short phrases, such as “roll ball” or “throw ball.” Keep following
this “one-up” rule: Generally use phrases with one more word than your child is using.
6. Follow your child’s interests. Rather than interrupting your child’s focus, follow along with
words. Using the one-up rule, narrate what your child is doing. If he’s playing with a shape
sorter, you might say the word “in” when he puts a shape in its slot. You might say “shape”
when he holds up the shape and “dump shapes” when he dumps them out to start over. By
talking about what engages your child, you’ll help him learn the associated vocabulary.
7. Consider assistive devices and visual supports. Assistive technologies and visual supports
can do more than take the place of speech. They can foster its development. Examples
include devices and apps with pictures that your child touches to produce words. On a
simpler level, visual supports can include pictures and groups of pictures that your child can
use to indicate requests and thoughts.
Your child’s therapists are uniquely qualified to help you select and use these and other strategies for
encouraging language development. Tell the therapist about your successes as well as any difficulties
you’re having. By working with your child’s intervention team, you can help provide the support your
child needs to find his or her unique “voice.”
How to Help Your Nonverbal Child
with Autism Speak
Approximately one third of children with autism are nonverbal. This means that they
never learn to speak more than a few words in their lives.
Why Can’t My Autistic Child Speak?
There may be a couple of reasons that a child with autism doesn’t speak. The primary
identifying aspect for nonverbal autism is determining whether or not the individual
speaks clearly or with interference.
Although there are individuals with autism that may struggle with having a back-and-
forth conversation, these are not nonverbal autistic people. Those who are nonverbal
don’t speak at all.
Let’s look at the reasons why this may be happening. Autistic children could lose the
ability to speak later on as the disorder’s symptoms worsen over time.
The individual could also be suffering from apraxia. This can cause the person to not
be able to say what they want to say.
Autistic individuals could also suffer from echolalia, which is the repetition of words
and phrases. This could also hinder clear communication.
In addition, there are social, behavioral and developmental symptoms for nonverbal
Social symptoms: Social interaction difficulties are a hallmark symptom of autism
spectrum disorder. Individuals generally avoid eye contact. They don’t respond when
their names are called. These could cause the individual to feel left out and isolated
and may lead to depression.
Developmental symptoms: Each individual is unique. Every autistic person
develops at a different rate. While a child can develop at a typical rate, their
developmental progress could be delayed after the age of 2 or 3. This could be the
case for speech as well.
Behavioral symptoms: Individuals with autism strictly stick to routines. Interruptions
in these routines or schedules could upset them. Some have really specific interests
and obsessions about certain objects and topics. They may have a short attention span,
causing their focus to switch from one thing to another, which could affect
communication. Behavioral symptoms really differ for each person.
Not all individuals show the same symptoms, and symptoms may improve with age as
they become less disruptive and severe.
Through speech therapy and speech interventions, nonverbal autistic children could
become verbal in time with the right and continuous help and support.
How to Communicate with a Nonverbal Autistic Child
There are an abundance of ways to help promote communication with your nonverbal
They don’t replace speech therapy or other interventions that are uniquely designed to
the needs of your child.
But they can be a great support at home, things that you can do to establish
communication with your child.
Talk: Keep talking with your child. Describe things to them. Include them in
conversations and don’t leave them out as if they are not there. Your child will still be
able to learn from this action.
Use simple language: Refrain from using sentences with a lot of words in them. Try
to use one or two word sentences. Once your child can use one word phrases, you can
move into using two phrase sentences to give them direction or describe something.
This will help them improve without overwhelming them.
Make the most of playtime: Play is an amazing tool to both entertain and practice
with children. While playing, you can have the opportunity for communication. While
playing with toys, you can encourage imitation. You can also involve fun activities
like singing or dancing so as to foster social interaction.
Go different ways: Nonverbal children with autism may express their emotions
through some other ways than speaking, like dancing, art, hand movements, and body
movements. You can try to help them express themselves better through activities like
finger painting or sensory activities.
Technology at your disposal: As we mentioned, there are various applications and
devices out that can help with technology. You can use them on your smartphone or
tablet as an assistive communication device.
Face your child: Sit right in front of your child, at their eye level. This will put you in
their field of view, where they can see your gestures, facial expressions and mouth
movements. This way they can comprehend what you are communicating via your
body language, too.