By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

Does My Autistic Child Understand Me? Tools for Communicating With a Nonverbal Child

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, manifests in many different ways and no two diagnoses are ever the same. This is one of the reasons it is so important to understand all the intricacies of an autism diagnosis. One of the rather common ways autism signs can manifest in children is communication delays, and specifically, difficulty with speech. According to a Cochrane Library study, it is estimated that “about 25% to 30% of children with ASD either fail to develop functional language or are minimally verbal.” But this doesn’t mean they lack the desire to connect and communicate with others. Discover more about some effective nonverbal autism communication tools so you can better connect with a neurodivergent person or child in your life.

What Is Nonverbal Autism?

Nonverbal, or non-speaking, autism is a form of autism in which a person has limited functional language skills. Nonverbal autistic people and children may have the ability to use some words or no verbal speech at all. Many experts prefer the term “nonspeaking” to “nonverbal” because this group of individuals have the ability to communicate and are able to understand those who communicate with them; their speech faculties are simply limited. Nonspeaking autistic people may also have the ability to write, type, sign, or use nonverbal communication strategies to convey meaning or words. Thus, experts believe the term “nonverbal” perpetuates a misconception that non-speaking autistic people are unable to use words at all. 

Additionally, people who are nonspeaking may have some difficulties with social interaction, making communication even more difficult. It is important to understand that nonverbal individuals and children do understand their family, friends, and caregivers—they may just need to respond using a different method than speech. Creating understanding around this manifestation of autism symptoms can help neurodivergent and neurotypical family members communicate more effectively.

Is it Common for a Child With Autism Spectrum Disorder To Be Nonverbal?

As we mentioned, limited or minimal speech is not uncommon in those with autism. The percentage of those who are nonspeaking can range from about 25-40%. These rates seem to have declined over the past decades mainly due to the modern ability to diagnose milder forms of autism and provide early intervention therapies.

While the exact percentage may be different depending on the source or the time period of a given study, it is generally accepted that neurodivergent children experience more language delays than their neurotypical contemporaries, but this in no way means they lack the desire or the ability to effectively communicate with those around them.

4 Strategies for Communicating With a Nonverbal Autistic Child

The way in which a parent, family member, or caregiver interacts with a nonspeaking autistic person in their life is a very intimate, individualized thing. But understanding nonverbal communication and autism can be extremely helpful for communicating on a day-to-day basis. Here are some strategies and tools commonly used to communicate with a nonspeaking autistic child or adult.

1. Sign Language or Makaton

Parents of neurotypical children often find it helpful to communicate by signing. Teaching a child some easy signs for words like “bathroom”, “food”, “thank you”, and “more” can help teach children to effectively express their wants and needs while strengthening the child-parent bond.

The same benefits can come from using American Sign Language (ASL) as an effective autism communication tool. That being said, American Sign Language is a natural language with grammar complexities like any spoken language, and it is entirely different from the basic signs used to communicate with toddlers.

This nuance and complexity is what makes ASL an effective tool for communicating with an autistic person who is nonspeaking; it gives them a much fuller range of words they can learn to describe how they are feeling or what they need in a given setting. Learning ASL, however, can take a long time, and if an autistic child has cognitive impairments in addition to language difficulties, ASL may be too complex for a child learning to communicate in and outside of the home.

Another method for communicating with nonspeaking autistic children is Makaton. Makaton is a language program that uses speech, signs, and graphic symbols to convey meanings. It was originally developed to help adults with speech and cognitive impairments express themselves but the vocabulary was later adjusted to include signs specific to the needs of children. There are many great resources out there for learning some basic but essential Makaton signs for beginners—including this one.

2. Flashcards and Assistive Technology Communication Devices

Flashcards and other aided learning materials can also be a really effective way to teach children the meaning of certain words. You can find flashcards specifically to teach children to convey emotion or flashcards for basic needs. You can even get creative and make your own flashcards with your child, like if you have a special word you use to refer to “snack,” try incorporating that into your nonverbal communication tools.

Assistive technology communication devices such as tablets may be beneficial for children as well. Apps on these devices not only schedule time for you and your child to work on communication skills, but they also showcase photos and say words. Thus, these supports can encourage your child to speak. Even if your child does not speak at first, the device can be helpful for them to understand the connection between photos and real objects. Additionally, your child can use the device to communicate by tapping on the photo, triggering the app to recite words. Remember to consider partnering with a behavioral therapist or a speech and language pathologist prior to including an assistive technology communication device in your child’s daily routine.

3. Imitation

Imitation is less about communication and more about recognition. It shows minimally verbal children that you are motivated to connect with them. The FCA recommends imitation tactics such as lining up toys like the child or expressing positive emotion in a similar way, smiling or squealing to express joy, or clapping hands to show excitement. Whatever physical cues the child uses to express emotion, adults should look to reflect those emotions back to the child in a way they understand.

4. Nonverbal Autism Toys & Activities

Play is one of the most effective ways for children with language, social, and sensory processing difficulties to learn. Nonverbal autism toys like soft, grippable blocks, books with tactile features or sounds, or learning tablets and drawing pads can act as reinforcers and help nonverbal children on the spectrum express themselves through play.

For children with social processing difficulties in particular, tangible reinforcers, like a beloved toy or an interactive game, can act as a greater motivator for a child learning to communicate. Try using toys, physical objects, and games as means for your child to express themselves if they struggle with certain sensory or social interaction.

So, if you are still wondering whether the neurodivergent person or child in your life understands you, the resounding answer is, yes, they do understand you and—more importantly—they want to communicate and connect with you. The strategy you use to communicate with your nonspeaking child will depend on their unique needs. It will take some practice and patience before a new language device becomes second nature to you and your child.

List of Academic Resources:

Additional Resources:

Delany, Tara. (2009). 101 Games and Activities for Children With Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders