Communication Techniques for the Non-Verbal Child
Everyone needs to communicate. The ability to communicate our needs and wants is essential to living a fulfilled life. It’s estimated that nearly 25% of people on the autism spectrum are non-verbal. Despite all the advances there have been in treating people on the autism spectrum, there is still much to be learned, especially with children. An important thing to remember that not all communication is verbal, even when that’s what our area of focus generally is.
Determining if Speech is Possible
As a speech therapist, it’s your obligation to make sure a child can communicate effectively. The first thing you must determine is if speech even possible. Saying words or making sounds through imitation will give you a base on which to begin your therapy sessions. If the child can make sounds or attempt to imitate words through speaking, then there is a higher probability that through proper therapy, speech is likely.
Even if the child isn’t able to speak after trying to imitate sounds and words, alternatives for communication are available and should be tried to see which alternative is the best fit based on the child’s abilities.
Alternative Forms of Communication
There are several ways to communicate without the use of speech. Body language is a form of nonverbal communication that we use daily. While body language is something that typically occurs naturally, nonverbal children can learn how to communicate feelings and needs if they aren’t already doing so.
Other alternate forms of nonverbal communication include:
- Sign language – Child learns how to use their hands to perform signs for words and phrases that represent meaning. Those who know or learn sign language can communicate with the child.
- Writing – Types or writes a message on a computer screen or paper.
- Object symbols – 3D models of things or simple objects adhered to a firm surface such as a card or a board. The child can touch or point to the item or items that represent what he/she wants.
- Flashcards – Cards that represent an image, such as a glass, cat, hairbrush, with or without their corresponding word beneath the picture that children can give or show to someone to convey what they want or need.
- Communication boards – Pictures, words, or letters on a board that the child uses to put together phrases to communicate.
- Voice output devices – These devices are touchscreen devices like a tablet or iPad with words, letters, or pictures that when pushed will speak in a pre-recorded computerized voice the word, letter, or picture on the device. Some of these devices are very multi-faceted and, depending on what the child pushes, can open more options.
As the child grows, you can incorporate different alternate communication options into their selection of communication options.
Using What Works
Once you’ve found the style of, or combination of, communication that fits the needs of the child, you can begin teaching them other communication skills. It’s important that you model the type of communication the child will be using and use any assistive devices in the child’s presence, so the child may become used to them. Therapists need to ensure the family also gets on board with the method of communication the child will use as well by encouraging practicing at home. Skills the child will learn with their form of communication may include:
- Taking turns
- Imitation skills
- Following Directions
Working each of the skills individually until they can be incorporated into a functional part of the child’s daily routine is important to the success of the nonverbal child. Each skill needs its own instruction and practice until the child understands and is comfortable with using the skills daily and in combination with one another.