Helping a non-verbal child with ASD communicate

Your child’s healthcare team can be a great resource for helping her communicate with you, and if she is working with a speech and language therapist, that person probably has great insight into what your child’s specific challenges might be when it comes to communication. Baby is unique, though, and that includes the way she thinks, and how she communicates, and even with great guidance, it may take some trial and error to figure out which types of encouragement for communication work best for Baby. As you’re figuring it out, there are a few different strategies it can help to hold in your mind.

Look for what your child is already doing

If your child is already trying to communicate, that’s already a huge step, and figuring out what and how she’s trying to communicate is a great place to start when figuring out how to expand her communication. This might mean looking at the way she tries to communicate or what she tries to communicate about – or both.

Starting with your child’s interests is a great way to demonstrate why she might want to communicate. Identifying the ways that she already might be communicating, and responding to them, is the most encouraging way to show her that you’re interested in what she has to say.

Work with her and give her lots of openings

Talking to her, and making sure language is a big part of her life, is just one part of helping her communicate – the other part comes when you make sure to leave spaces in the conversation for your little one to take part. Especially for parents whose children have been nonverbal for a while, it’s natural to want to fill the silence, but making a statement, pausing, and then turning to your child and showing her that you’re interested in how she would respond, you’re giving her the space to start to think about her response – even if she isn’t ready to make it out loud yet.

Consider assistive devices

Your child’s ability to communicate – to make herself understood, and to interact with the people around her – is far more important than whether speech is the way she does so. In addition, for some children, assistive devices can be a step on the road to verbal communication, or can be a great supplement to verbal communication as it develops.

Baby’s therapists will be able to talk through different types of assistive devices with you in more detail. In general, though, assistive devices often work by allowing children with ASD to communicate by pressing buttons on either dedicated devices, like GoTalk devices, or through programs loaded onto devices like tablets or phones. Children can press buttons associated with pictures and, later, written words, that symbolize concepts like objects, types of food, greetings, or any number of other words, and have those words come from the device out loud. Assistive devices can help young children feel confident in their ability to communicate, can give them scripts for what talking can sound like, and can help them make connections between spoken words and ideas.

Late talkers and ASD

There’s a reason “language delays” are listed as one of the more common symptoms of ASD. While some children don’t end up developing verbal speech (which doesn’t mean they won’t develop other ways to communicate), others may develop speech in their own time, even if that time ends up being significantly after their typically-developing peers. A 2013 study published in Pediatrics, which followed children with ASD who had not developed speech before age four, found that 70% of the children studied developed phrase-speech (communication in phrases of two or more words) at or after age four, and that 47% of the children developed fluent speech at or after age four. If your child isn’t speaking, or isn’t speaking fluently yet, she still may – and even if verbal speech doesn’t end up being the way she communicates most comfortably, by working together, you’ll be able to figure out the way of communicating that works for your family.

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