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Mother and child blowing bubbles

How to Communicate with a Non-Verbal Child

Children are considered non-verbal when they are able to vocalize sounds but do not use any words to communicate. A child is minimally-verbal if they use a few select words but are unable to have a conversation. Many children on the autism spectrum experience differences in speech development. Other conditions including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, selective mutism and verbal dyspraxia can also impact a child’s ability to use spoken language. However, non-verbal doesn’t mean non-communicative and with time and supported speech therapy, many children learn to speak and others find their own way to communicate without words.

If you are a care provider, family member or friend wanting to communicate with a non-verbal or minimally-verbal child, here are some general strategies that may help. Just remember that every child is different and a technique that works for one child may not work for another.

Focus on Body Language. Exaggerate your gestures using both your body and voice when talking. Nod your head ‘yes’, shake your head ‘no’, wave hello and goodbye, clap your hands with excitement and point at things when you are talking about them. Gestures provide visual cues to support your words, and can be learned and imitated by a non-verbal child which can help build the foundation for language.

Engage in Play. Playing includes a back-and-forth exchange just like a conversation and is a great opportunity to connect. Follow a child’s interests, choose age-appropriate activities and talk about what you’re doing and experiencing. It will depend on the child’s age and ability but sensory activities like bubbles, finger painting or playdough, building with Lego or blocks and games that encourage imitation like Simon Says can all be great options for play. Always position yourself in front of the child and at eye level so they can see and hear you.

Involve and Respect. Talk directly to the child instead of their caregiver or support person. Select age-appropriate language, regardless of their cognitive development and never use ‘baby-talk’. Ask for permission before any interaction and watch the child’s body language to make sure that they feel comfortable and safe. Involve the child in decisions that will affect them through ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions or by offering a choice between two options. And use simple language when giving directions.

Leave Space. It can be tempting to fill the silence, complete sentences or answer questions on behalf of a non-verbal child. Give them the time and space to process information, be okay with pauses and watch for physical cues. When they respond in any way, make sure you react and acknowledge these efforts quickly. Non-verbal children are often very aware of the emotions of the people around them, so try to remain patient and calm even if you feel frustrated.

Communicating with a non-verbal child takes flexibility, patience, creativity and intuition, but it can be so rewarding to help them find their voice and a special bond can be formed through your efforts. These tips are general techniques for connecting with a non-verbal child. A speech and language pathologist at VHA Home HealthCare can provide more specific strategies and activities that will work best for the child in your life. Call (416) 489-2500 ext. 4649 or email privateservices@vha.ca for more information.