Updated: Aug 23, 2022
When people hear that a child is non-verbal, they often assume that that child is autistic or has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Whilst some children with ASD are indeed non-verbal, there are a plethora of other conditions or learning disabilities than can cause a child to be non-verbal or long-term delayed verbal skills. These may include children with Down Syndrome, PMLD or speech apraxia.
Each child is unique, and whilst the tips and tricks below may help one child develop speech or communication skills, the techniques may differ completely for another child. It's important to get to know each individual child, what works for them, and also to incorporate their unique interests into your strategies.
It's also important to remember that being non-verbal or having minimal verbal ability is not linked to intelligence. I want to tell you the story of a boy I shall call Adam* before I jump into how you can support children who are non-verbal;
Adam is a 15 year old boy with Autism. He is non-verbal but does make sounds/grunts/noises to indicate how he is feeling. Adam was a strong lad and could have very explosive episodes of challenging behaviour (I still have some scars from him!). He was obsessed with water, specifically pouring it from one cup to another, but found it challenging to engage in many school activities.
We tried various different communication strategies with Adam (PECS, Makaton, whiteboards) but nothing appeared to work. We were reluctant to let things like iPads near him because he could very quickly switch and break/throw things and our school simply couldn't afford many broken iPads. However, one day, Adam grabbed another student's iPad and quickly opened up the Notes app.
Adam then proceeded to write fluently, in full sentences, exactly what he was thinking and what he wanted. We were shocked. He wrote questions such as "What's happening with the Scottish referendum? Will they be independent?" It was inspiring. This bright, articulate, curious young man had never been able to communicate these thoughts before and now he had a whole new world opened up to him.
Following this, Adam continued to use his iPad to communicate with me and other staff. His challenging behaviour decreased dramatically (it was probably frustration!) and he made leaps and bounds in engaging in other activities.
1. Simplify Your Language
Using simple language allows the child to follow exactly what you're saying much easier and also helps them make better connections to what you are referring to. It is also easier to imitate simple language. Try speaking with single words at first. For example, if a child is playing with a toy car, you could say "car", and slowly build this up to describe what the child is doing with the toy, e.g. "push car". Follow the "one up" rule, where you use one more word per phrase than the child is currently using. Keep instructions short too, such as "Coat on" or "tidy up" so that the children clearly understand what's expected and they can also start to connect words to actions or items.
2. Give "space" for the child to speak
It's important for a child to get lots of "opportunities" to speak, no matter how tempting it is for you to fill in the space. Always give a couple of extra seconds for children to respond to questions, or if you see them looking in need of something, wait and look expectantly at them. If they don't attempt to communicate, that's okay, give them clear options as to what they may want and try to prompt them to say one of the options after you've said it. Other ways you can give them space is by saying a common phrase and leaving out the last word for the child to fill in the space. For example, "Twinkle Twinkle, little...." and often, the child will fill in the gap once they are confident.
3. Encourage social interaction and play
Children learn through play, and that includes learning language. Engaging and interactive play provides enjoyable opportunities for you and the child to communicate. Try a wide variety of games and find a few that the child you are supporting is interested in. These may be simple games such as Peek a Boo, which can help joint attention and eye contact, or more complex ones such as board games. You could even try playful interactions, such as signing, imaginary play or reading, if games are a bit of a challenge for your child. 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. Play is a great time to encourage imitation. Again, give them as many opportunities to speak or communicate with you as possible. Not every attempt will be verbal, but any attempt at communication should be praised.
4. Use alternative methods of communication
Some children will either need to or prefer to use an alternative method of communication. There are loads of different communication aids you can use to help children 'speak'.
Makaton is a sign, symbol and language programme aimed at supporting children with SEND in their communication. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression. With Makaton, signs are used with speech, in spoken word order. This helps provide extra clues about what someone is saying.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses visual pictures and symbols as a form of communication. In its most basic form, either you or the child can use a picture or pictures to communicate what the child needs, wants or to explain what is now going to happen. I often use these to explain routine or to offer choices. For example, at snack time I will present the pictures of apple and raisins and simply ask the child "Apple or raisin?" and wait for them to point to the card they want. It's handy to keep a bunch of PECS cards on a lanyard, especially the ones you will use often such as; Yes, No, Stop, Toilet, Snack, Lunch, Home etc.
Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC) has been shown to be really beneficial for children with ASD who are non-verbal. These may be apps on the iPad, such as Proloquo2Go. Using this software, when the symbol or picture is touched on the device, it produces a voice saying the word out loud at the same time. This allows students to drag and drop various different symbols to create sentences and communicate fluently.
Whether or not your child learns to speak, it is still possible to give them the necessary tools they need to express themselves coherently. This will make it easier and far less intimidating for them to engage with others, and it will also help them make a valuable contribution to society. Do you have any tips for teaching a non-verbal child to express themselves? Share your thoughts, tips and suggestions in the comments below.