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5 Ways to Encourage Communication with Your Non-Verbal Child

May 11, 2023

Teaching a child with special needs to communicate

It’s estimated that as many as 50 percent of those with autism are non-verbal. This can make the challenges of parenting seem that much more daunting. When faced with this dilemma many desperate parents go in search of tools or strategies which they hope will give their special child a voice. And while there certainly is merit in trying to teach a non-verbal child with autism to communicate, parents shouldn’t stop there.

It’s important to understand that just because a child is non-verbal doesn’t mean they can’t express themselves. Non-verbal children with autism have a unique way of communicating. Some will use gestures, make sounds or even act out. It’s up to parents to take the time to learn and make sense of these communicative cues. This way you can learn to communicate with your child on their own terms which is one of the best ways to make your child feel heard.

Understanding non-verbal autism

If you’re looking to improve communication and connect with your non-verbal child, a good place to start is by considering what it really means to be non-verbal. One of the biggest misconceptions about being non-verbal is that this implies that a person is unable to use language. This is not always the case.

Some children who are labelled non-verbal do use language but in a very limited and minimalistic way. These children are unable to hold a proper conversation, and may say things like “car” to mean “let’s get in the car”. Then there are those who repeat phrases they hear or are taught by speech therapists. While they’re able to speak, they’re often unable to to use language to convey real thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Of course there are some non-verbal children who are unable to communicate using any spoken language. While they may never be able to speak, they can often be taught to express themselves in writing using an iPad, for example, or in the form of drawings. There are also different therapies and other non-verbal communication systems which can prove to be quite effective for such a non-verbal child.

How to talk to your non-verbal child

So much emphasis is placed on teaching non-verbal children with autism to express themselves that the role parents play gets overlooked. Parents need to be mindful of how they communicate with their non-verbal child. Not only can this make it easier to bond, but it sends a powerful message to your child about how they’re perceived.

Here’s what every special needs parent should keep in mind when engaging with their non-verbal child.

1. Talk normally

Many parents resort to childish tones and reduced vocabulary when communicating with their non-verbal child. They’ll say things like “Go car” or “Hands quiet” in the hope that this simplistic, infantile language will get through to their child. But that’s just the thing, many non-verbal children have no problem understanding language. An inability to speak does not indicate an inability to process language. It also doesn’t hint at a low IQ, so there is no need to babble or use motherese.

Ido Keder, a young non-verbal boy with autism, is perhaps the best example of why parents should speak to their kids as they would anyone else. Keder is a high school student, blogger and the author of a book on called “Climbing out of autism’s silent prison”. On his blog he explains: “If I could educate the specialists, the first thing I’d recommend is to talk normally to autistic kids. No more, “Go car,” “Close door,” “Hands quiet,” or the like. It’s stupid to talk this way.”

There’s a very touching post on Keder’s blog by his mom where she describes how they used to use simplified language to communicate with him until one day she realized her son understood. She explains that when he was younger, Keder would grunt every few seconds. His mom tried to get him to stop by saying things like “mouth quiet” or “no” to no avail. Eventually out of desperation, she told her son that she found the grunting distracting when she driving and that he needed to make more effort not to do it. He stopped immediately and from that day onwards, the family started talking normally to their son.

2. Let your child have a say

Because non-verbal children struggle expressing themselves, it can be tempting to anticipate a child’s needs. While this may be well-meaning, it simply contributes to a child’s muteness as it means they don’t have to try communicating. Instead do your best to give your child opportunities to convey what they want, need or think. One of the best ways to do this is to encourage your child to use some form of non-verbal communication to express what they want. Only then would you give them what they want.

Let your child with special needs have a say

By not giving in to your child’s needs immediately, you are giving them an opportunity to articulate what they want more clearly.  This is a great way to encourage non-verbal children to express themselves, and lets them practice their non-verbal communication skills.

3. Reevaluate your expectations

Have you set realistic expectations for your child’s language development? Be sure to reevaluate with the understanding that your child may never speak. Once you accept this, you may find you’re less preoccupied with whether or not your child hits certain developmental milestones. Instead of focusing on what your child cannot or does not do, this will help you appreciate the unique ways your child communicates.

You may even find that this helps you understand your child for the first time. One special needs mom describes such an experience. She explains how she used to give her non-verbal daughter with autism an iPad to play with while she did chores. One day the mom sat down with child to watch the video she’d been watching most of the day. The song was about playing outside in the water. This gave the mom an idea that maybe her child was trying to tell her something. She decided to take her outside to sit by the pool. Her daughter’s face lit up, and suddenly her mom realized that her daughter had been trying to communicate with her all along.

4. Be calm

Children with autism are particularly sensitive to what their parents are feeling. The more anxious and stressed you are the higher the levels of anxiety an autistic child will experience. Do your best to calm yourself before you interact with your child. Also pay attention to your tone of voice and body language. Your child will feel the difference immediately. Marci Lebowitz, an autism specialist,  explains how important a calm parent is when it comes to improving communication with a nonverbal child and says that “your calmness will feel like a warm blanket to them.”

5. Use AngelCall to help your child feel safe

The safer a non-verbal child feels, the more likely they are to want to communicate in whatever way they can. One of the best ways a parent can do that is by offering support to a child during daily transitions or when they encounter new situations. While a parent can’t always be there to offer calming reassurance, the AngelSense 2-Way Call can help immensely.

Use AngelCall to help your child feel safe

AngelCall allows parents to  talk with their child anytime, wherever they may be, without the child needing to “pick up” or click anything. Many parents use the 2-Way Call to instruct their child to stop in order to avoid a busy road or stay away from a dangerous place. They can also calm them down or ask for help from people around them.

Parents are also telling us that they are using the Assistive Speakerphone to help their child transition smoothly between places and activities during the day, for instance when they are on their way to school they check in to say “have a great day” or “I love you” and to hear that everything is fine. This should give your special child a sense of calm as they begin to understand that your soothing voice is never far away.

Whatever your non-verbal child’s communicative ability, it’s important to consider how this impacts their experience of the world. Think about how isolating and terribly frustrating this inability to express oneself must be. It’s this kind of understanding which will change the way you react when your child acts out, cries for seemingly no reason or has a tantrum. But more importantly, this may also shape the way you communicate with your child.

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