How can I help my non-verbal child communicate?

If you’re the parent of a child with autism, no doubt you may feel as though sometimes, the challenges are more numerous than successes, the obstacles overwhelming and never ending. For many parents of kids who are on the spectrum, it’s the frustration of not understanding what your child wants – and needs – that’s most painful.

Parents of non-verbal kids on the spectrum have an added layer of frustration. If this is you, you may report what other parents in similar situations do: you wish you knew what that look means, what that sound represents. You wish you could just “tell” if your child is comfortable, if they’re in pain, if they’re feeling afraid.

This is something that petrifies countless parents. How will we ever understand our children if they can never speak?

Not long ago, experts believed that if a child didn’t speak after the age of four, they never would. But we now know that non-verbal kids can absolutely potentially learn to speak later than that. Some even develop an unexpected level of fluency in their teens and young adulthood.

But, for now, if you have a non-verbal child, you’re likely looking for ways to foster communication so you can understand what it is they’re trying to tell you and minimize your frustration – and theirs.

Here are some ways you can do just that.

Play. Yes, play! Playful interaction is a way for your child to learn (and enjoy it at the same time). Through play, your child’s visual, motor, and communication skills are honed.

Consider this scenario: if your child is playing with something, they’re likely using their hands. Introducing different textures and materials will show you what your child likes and doesn’t like – if they’re dismissing or rejecting play dough, for example, you now know: no play dough! They may throw it aside, or they might recoil, or they may make a face. You’ll be able to connect, as they do, their physical reaction to something specific.

Play isn’t limited to touch, either. You can introduce music and sounds, and again, you’ll learn more about your child this way. What kind of music or instruments do they respond well to? Which seem to bother them?

Time. Hand over the reins to your child when it comes to setting the pace of what they want to do. When you can see that they gravitate toward something and put a lot of focus on it, it teaches you more about who they are and what their responses are to certain things. You may develop ideas similar to what this specific thing is that they seem to love, and bring that into the mix.
Assist. Assistive devices are available that may be able to help your non-verbal child communicate, but keep in mind that these devices are not intended to replace speech – they’re just another way to communicate. You can try assistive devices, like visual supports, to help your child make choices, requests, or even share their ideas.

Allow. Let your child respond. Even if you so badly want to complete their sentences for them, even if you want to answer on their behalf, give them the opportunity to think, process, and respond. Even if it takes longer than you thought, or longer than you’d hoped, empower your child as best you can by allowing them the space to grow.

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