Communication skills are important for autistic toddlers and children because these skills don’t come naturally for them. These activities and games for nonverbal toddlers are designed to get them communicating. Whether it is through pointing, gesturing, or talking, it all counts as communication. So however communicative your toddler is, these games are perfect for them!
Both of my children are (mostly) nonverbal. They use American Sign Language as their primary means of communication. My three-year-old, Big A, can’t speak. Making one’s vocal cords, tongue, teeth, and mouth coordinate to make words involves a lot of motor planning. His autism diagnosis, and specifically the apraxia that accompanies it, makes that motor planning hard for him.
Little A (at nearly two) can speak but is like, “Why should I?” His brother gets along well enough without talking. Little A prefers sign language and will actively refuse to say words with his mouth, (although sometimes vocal words slip through).
Subsequently, I’ve found that talking isn’t really that important. Communication is important. It doesn’t matter whether that communication is via mouth sounds, hand motions, arranging pictures, or using a computer. And all toddlers need to increase their communication skills (as they’re willful creatures who will sooner throw themselves down before telling you what’s troubling them), regardless of their speaking ability.
Try telling that to the Internet. There's a lot of emphasis placed on verbal communication-and online resources reflect that. Search "games to increase communication" and you'll find piles of articles suggesting games like Telephone, 20 Questions, and Giving Presentations. That ain't happening here, Internet! You're going to need to meet us where we are. In the face of this lack of information, I've compiled games for nonverbal toddlers, especially autistic nonverbal toddlers.
Games for Nonverbal Toddlers
These games and activities help increase feeling and object identification, understanding of conversation, turn-taking ability, and drive home the idea that words mean something. These tenets must be understood to increase communication skills whether a child is verbal or not.
Fun With Miming
Nonverbal doesn't mean silent, amirite? Between them, the A Team makes a lot of weird sounds; grunts and screeches, giggles and howls. I echo these sounds to mimic conversation. I'll throw in some real words like, "oh yeah?" and "no she didn't."
Following the Leader and simple song and dance routines encourage mimicry as well. We've recently discovered Jack Hartmann on YouTube. Big A rocks out to these catchy songs (and wholeheartedly attempts the dances).
I encourage mimicry in the hopes that someday the boys will graduate from copying grunts and motions to words and actions.
Oink, Vroom, Pop!
When we have cars or plastic farm animals out, I'm "vrooming" or "mooing" my face off. Sometimes the boys will join in. They get lots of praise when they do.
Words are the last step in the concept that sounds can represent things. Making animal and car sounds or fun vocalizations are one of the first steps, encouraging this concept without using actual words.
"More, Please!" is taking a pile of toys from the A Team and holding them hostage (this sounds more hardcore than it actually is).
I'll gather, say, all the cars in my lap. The boys have to sign "more, please" to get one back. This game was upsetting at first. They thought I was just taking their toys. We have lots of fun with it now that they understand how to get them back.
This activity enforces that communication (signing, pointing, grabbing a picture, etc) achieves desired outcomes better than screaming.
It's fun to have a Magic Hat for this activity, but any container will do. I hide two or three toys while the boys are watching. Then they try to guess (through sign) what object I'll grab. I give clues, encouraging them to sign descriptors too ("It's red! Can you sign 'red?'").
I say "use your words" dozens of times a day. This game reminds nonverbal toddlers that words can represent objects. Eventually, I hope the A Team will use this knowledge to say "Thomas" instead of screeching nonsensically at the toy box.
The song "If You're Happy and You Know It" is a great tool for labeling feelings. You don't even have to stick with happy! There's mad and stomp your feet, sad and make a frown, bored and twiddle your thumbs, etc. We act them all out with great gusto.
No one, including children, can control what they can't identify. I can't ask Big A to control his anger if he doesn't understand what anger looks and feels like. Acting out emotions in a playful way gives Big A the space to observe emotions without having to feel them.
In our house, "sharing" is a dirty word.
Mostly because it's an abstract concept. "You want me to hand over my toy? Why?? For how long? I don't understand time!"
Taking turns, though? That's easier to understand. We take short ten second turns at first. Over time, I stretch the turns out. When the boys are a little older, taking turns will become sharing.
This isn't an obvious way to improve communication, but it sure does decrease screaming. Replacing screaming with almost any other behavior is a huge step in increasing communication skills.
Red Light, Green Light
This classic game is another way to teach that words have meaning. In Red Light, Green Light, words are directly causing action. When participants hear "green light," they run, "red light," they stop. This game can be "played" at any time. Saying "red light!" on a random Tuesday morning will stop Little A from getting into something dangerous.
Red Light, Green Light can teach listening skills, too. Like the toddlers they are, the A Team can get keyed up running around, making it harder to hear my instructions. This allows me to say things like, "take some deep breaths so you can hear," or "we have to listen even if we're excited."
A Note on Listening
Speaking of listening, it's a huge part of communication skills.
It's hard to communicate effectively without understanding. It's hard to understand without listening. If I want the A Team to understand and follow my instructions, they need to be good listeners. And the best way to teach listening skills is to model listening skills.
Having nonverbal children, I don't listen with my ears. I listen with my eyes. When I'm with the boys it's important that I keep my eyes on their hands, not lost in my thoughts or scrolling on my phone.
Of course, part of my job is being on my phone. And there are household and community responsibilities. Also, I don't think it's a bad thing for the A Team to understand that they can't always get my undivided attention. Sometimes they need to amuse themselves. When my attention inevitably wanders I sign "break," do my thing, and resume activities attentively when I can.
I used to worry more about the A Team talking. They'll probably talk one day, but, honestly, I try not to put much stock or expectation in that. Focusing on communication, in any form, rather than talking, has helped me let those worries go.
When did your littles start talking? What was their first word? Let me know in the comments! Share this article, make the internet understand that nonverbal toddlers need increased communication skills as much as verbal toddlers.