How to Talk with a Nonverbal Child

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Though a nonverbal child may not answer (in a way that you’re used to), they’re as interested in conversation as anybody else. In this article, I’ll break down how to talk with a nonverbal child.

He’s So Quiet…

Says the super nice sales lady at the cosmetics counter.

“Oh, he’s nonverbal,” I reply breezily. And just like that, the sales lady is a deer in the headlights, stammering and apologizing. She begins asking questions about Big A but directed at me, without making eye contact with my son.

Look, this is a super common reaction and I’m not trying to shade this lovely woman. I acted the same way before Big A was born.

It is neither a tragedy nor an embarrassment that Big A doesn’t talk. It’s fine to acknowledge his nonverbalness, I promise. It’s ok that you didn’t know that. It’s ok that you don’t know how to talk with a nonverbal child; it’s a concrete skill that doesn’t come naturally. And I didn’t know that, either. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know.

So, how does one talk with a nonverbal child?

nonverbal child portraits
The many faces of Big A

Just Like A Verbal Person

I don’t say that to be a smart aleck or make you feel bad. I’ve been around my autistic son every day of his life and this is still something I have to remind myself regularly. You know how the squeaky wheel gets the grease? Well, Big A doesn’t squeak.

Therefore, I gotta stand ready with the WD-40. That means watching him, ready to jump in when he makes eye contact, a sound, or hand movement. In the meantime, I try to talk to him like I would any other little kid, narrating what he’s doing or asking about his favorite toys.

I’ll ask questions I know the answer to, and keep on talking as if he’s answered me. He smiles quietly and seems to feel understood.

If you know what kids are into or can endure small talk, then you too can talk with a nonverbal child.

Nonverbal People Have Habits, Preferences, and Goals, Too

I’m still not trying to be snarky, swear.

Look, everyone knows I like mermaids because I won’t shut up about it. Big A doesn’t gush about his love for trucks. I mean, he definitely shows me in some overt ways (like screaming when I won’t buy one at the store) but I have to pay attention to his cues to learn that red pickup trucks are his favorite.

If a nonverbal child doesn’t give you clues about habits and preferences, ask their caregiver.

nonverbal child doing puzzle with sibling
Big A loves to do puzzles with his younger brother

Step Back and Observe

I have to step back and observe Big A to learn his cues.

Over the years I’ve noticed the difference between his grunts of frustration and delight, or how a slightly more raised eyebrow is the difference between surprise and fear. Often I can tell what Big A is feeling by his movements and pacing.

Big A’s stimming is a whole language in and of itself; it’s one I’m still learning.

Be a bit more observant than usual when talking with a nonverbal child. Does the person have slumped shoulders or a calm smile? Tailor the interaction accordingly.

Narrate Everything

While narration is a great language acquisition practice for all children, it’s especially helpful for nonverbal children.

Honestly, it fills the space. It can be a bit awkward at first, babbling into silence. So describe what you’re doing: “I’m filling the pot with water to boil for my Chai tea, I’m feeling blah blah blah, last night I dreamed, have I ever told you about Freddie Prinze Jr…”

Narrate what the nonverbal child, any other family members, or pets are doing, too.

nonverbal autistic child pointing angrily
No words needed, simple or otherwise.

Use Simple Words

I’m not telling you to dumb things down, but I am telling you to use two words when you could use three. Build sentences up slowly, like finicky Jenga towers.

Instead of “bring me the wipes, please,” try “bring wipes” until compliance is achieved. Then try for “bring me wipes.” Next is “bring me wipes, please.” Aim for, “I require the use of the lightly moistened towelettes, child, fetch them posthaste.” (That’s a joke.)

You don’t have to speak in a sing-song tone or talk veeerry slowly when meeting a nonverbal child. Just use shorter sentences.

Leave Space for a Reply

It’s a delicate art, filling silence while also leaving spaces for replies that aren’t coming; but you’ll get it with practice.

I want Big A to understand the ebb and flow of conversation and that his conversational contributions matter. Giving him space to respond (or not) is how I show him that respect.

You can do the same by observing (or asking about) the habits and preferences of a nonverbal child, asking about those topics, and leaving space for replies. If no verbal ones are coming, remark on the nonverbal ones. If no response comes at all, keep interacting, asking questions, and pausing for replies.

Mimic

We practice imitation with Big A every day. Sometimes it’s just some casual mirroring, other times it’s more complicated games (like Follow the Leader or Simon Says).

Encouraging mimicking is a great way to teach skills (“brush your teeth like this, can you stand on one foot like me, etc.”), foster feelings of closeness and silliness, and encourage pro-social exchanges.

Professionals like doctors, daycare providers, police, and school employees can use these tactics to get to know and make requests (“can you stick your tongue out like me so I can check your throat?”) of nonverbal children.

nonverbal autistic child practicing mimicking
Practicing mimicking with Big A, selfie-style

Play

Play is a universal language. Young and old, verbal and nonverbal, we can all connect over games.

Use play to practice new situations (“let’s play first day of school!”), reinforce good habits (“wash your hands in the play sink before we cook”), practice communication skills (“what does the cow say?”), and increase social skills (“she’s going to take a turn, then it’s your turn”).

Sometimes play is talking. Is a nonverbal child not responding to you while pushing a car around on the floor? Get down there and push with them.

Learn and Use Sign Language

I know, I make it sound so simple. But, it really is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.

It’s simple because you don’t need to know enough American Sign Language (ASL) to translate a speech or negotiate a peace talk. You need to be able to ask a nonverbal child if he’s hungry.

There are so many baby sign language YouTube videos. Watch them over and over and over and over again. Soak up all the cheesy songs. They’ll get stuck in your head, it helps.

Explore Communication Devices and Visual Supports

Visual supports are non-verbal ways for nonverbal children to communicate needs, make choices, and make sense of the world. These include PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), visual charts and calendars, social stories, and pictorial descriptions of tasks and expectations.

There are also electronic devices that can “speak” for nonverbal children. Or, at least, express more complex thoughts than pictures.

Ask your child’s pediatrician, speech therapist, or occupational therapist about all the available options.

visual support aid for nonverbal autistic child
Here’s the visual support we use for day-to-day scheduling.

I get so many messages describing worries about children not talking. Caregivers want to know why their little ones (usually between 18 months and three) aren’t talking yet or saying more; they want to tell me about what words they can say and what articles they’ve read about late talkers.

There’s a distinction I’d like to make clear.

Talking Versus Communicating

First, I totally understand your anxiety. Second, I don’t mean to be callous or dismissive, but I don’t want to hear about talking. I want to hear about communicating.

Does your baby lift his arms up to be held? Mimic you during simple finger games and songs? Point to something she wants? Do any animal sounds, babbling, screeching, or mimicking? A lack of those kinds of gestures is a lack of communication. And it’s a lack of communication that gets my attention.

If you’re experiencing a total lack of communication-that also includes talking-contact your pediatrician.

How To Talk With A Nonverbal Child

Talking with a nonverbal child can a bit awkward (and it’s ok to acknowledge that). But now you know what to say.

Happy communicating!

Love,

megan imhoff
Megan

Megan

Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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