How To Communicate with a Non-Verbal Child

One of Autism's Challenges in Life!

Parents spending time with daughter

Laryngitis is a viral infection that affects the larynx and the use of the vocal chords. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a disorder that affects various areas of a person's life such as their communication skills, their processing of information, development of hypersensitive issues and so much more. In the case of Dasan, my son, one of the areas of his life affected by this disorder made him officially a non-verbal child. Now the question is: "How to communicate with a non-verbal child?"

Since he was diagnosed with Autism at 3 years of age, he has used several communication tools to express his needs, his feelings and desires to us and others. While we are proud to see that his vocabulary expanded to approximately 10 words, he still needs these other tools as his vocabulary is not extensive enough to communicate effectively with others.

In a way, his reality could be compared to the following situation. Imagine you are a tourist visiting China. You don't know the language and you are asking around for the nearest washroom. Which tools would you use in order to be understood? In Dasan's world, these tools are part of a daily practice. You will be surprised by how similar these tools are between someone affected by Autism and someone suffering from Laryngitis. Here is how to communicate with a non-verbal child.

  1. Show me the honey! Since he was a toddler, Dasan has been using this tool to communicate his needs and desires. If the object is small enough, he brings it to us. Otherwise, he guides us to it. He uses our hand and fingers to point at is. Why? Simply because for an unknown reason, Dasan refuses to point himself.
  2. Pictures are worth a thousand words. At home and at school, now that he is of school age at 7 years old, Dasan brings us the picture that represents his needs or desires. We are using PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) by using pictures to communicate with our son. At home, the pictures are on the refrigerator. At school, they are in a pocket on the wall.
  3. Sign language is a great tool. Sign language has been present in our lives since my son started to receive the services of specialists following his diagnosis. School is also teaching him a few signs, gradually expanding his repertoire.
  4. Body language tells a lot. Dasan often uses body language, expressing his needs and feelings through his actions and reactions. One of his issues is a need for pressure. He will use our Labrador retriever to show what he wants at times. Dasan will lightly press on the dog's side to let us know that he needs pressure. Pressure can be relieved by a massage, a weighted blanket or vest, a big hug or being wrapped in a blanket. If he has a headache, he will lightly bang his head with both hands.
  5. Write it all if you can! Last year, on Mother's Day, my son gave me a card that he typed himself. When his teacher asked me this year what was our goal for our son, I suggested that he would learn more spelling and how to type on the computer. As I explained, until he turned 7 years of age, he had 50% chances to become verbal one day. This percentage is diminishing until he turns 13 years old. Afterwards, it would be considered a miracle. I want him to master this tool to communicate with us.

As you can see, all these tools are the ones you would use while suffering from Laryngitis. The difference between your situation and Autism Spectrum Disorder or any other non-verbal person is that it is their daily practice. You can now understand how to communicate with a non-verbal child or any other person living with the same issue.


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I've been working in the field of autism for almost 7 years now and the adaptive communication skills that some of my students come up with still amaze me. The fact that he's been introduced to PECS and most likely had EI (Early Intervention) as a toddler greatly increases his success communicatively. Did he ever have words or vocalizations? One area that sometimes gets overlooked when a child shows proficiency with a communication book is the possibility that they may, eventually, become vocal. I have a student that has become so reliant on PECS that he doesn't even attempt to vocalize anymore. It's really kind of sad...

By Terence Van Essendelft