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How do I communicate with my non-verbal autistic child?

When your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, “you’re already thinking a thousand things, probably,” says Emily, mom to 6-year-old Cooper, who was diagnosed with ASD at the age of four. “Add to that diagnosis the nonverbal part, and your worries increase.”

Cooper is non-verbal, so Emily has compassion for all parents of children who are going through the same.

“You wonder, ‘How will I ever know what he needs? Is he hurting? Is he sad? Does he want something to eat other than what I made?’

“I am such a talker, and a listener, too… for me, for my family, this has been a very challenging experience.”

About 30% of kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are nonverbal. There’s no such diagnosis as nonverbal autism, but kids are considered nonverbal when they use no words at all to communicate, or if can speak but only using a few select words. They can’t or won’t carry on a full conversation.

But just because a child is nonverbal doesn’t mean they can’t communicate.

Here are some things you can do to communicate (or improve communication) with your non-verbal child:

1. Use simple language.

When labeling activities or explaining feelings, use simple language. For example, when handing your child a snack, perhaps say, “Hungry.” When giving them a glass of water, the same kind of language: “Thirsty.” If you respond to your child that you don’t know, shrug your shoulders; if you say yes, nod your head. Connect simple language to an action.

2. Provide options.

It’s much easier to select between two items or activities than it is to give someone a whole mess of things from which to pick – whether that someone has autism or not. If you’re offering to play with your child, give them an option of A or B. This way, they’re participating comfortably in choosing what they want to do, and they can easily tell you what decision they’ve made.

3. Get interactive.

Play! If your child loves Legos, call out the shapes or the colors. If they like to look at picture books, point to different images and call out their names. Not only does this give your child great enjoyment that you’re participating in something they love, it encourages their social skill development too.

4. Mirror work. We spend so much time trying to get our kids to mimic us, to follow us along – what about mimicking them? Mirror their facial expressions, sounds, words and actions. In this way, they can see that you’re paying attention, and it gets them comfortable mirroring your behaviors and actions too. Remember that not all children with autism have the ability to imitate, so be patient – and be okay with it if this isn’t the activity for them right now.

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