Helping Nonverbal Children with Autism to Talk and Communicate

Health Writer

One of the hallmark symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is difficulty with communication. Many children with ASD have delays in speech, start speaking and then regress, or never develop speech. In the past, doctors accepted that about one-half of all children with autism would use never use verbal communication. Today, that number is much smaller, with recent studies finding that 80 percent of children with ASD do learn to talk. One study found that 70 percent of those with a language delay used phrase or fluent language by the age of eight years old. As we continue to learn and understand ASD, this number will, hopefully, continue to shrink. These studies give parents whose children are currently nonverbal hope.

If your child has delayed speech, it is best to work with a speech or occupational therapist to focus on developing language and communication skills. Even those children who don't use speech benefit from learning how to communicate without talking. Early intervention services have been found to improve cognitive, social and communication skills in children with autism, however, if your child was diagnosed later and did not receive early intervention services. working with a therapist now can still help. Some children might not start using speech until adolescence or later.

Parents can help at home. Remember, every child with autism is different and will react differently to therapies. What works for one child may not work for a different child. Try different approaches to find out what works best and always work in conjunction with your child's treatment team. It is possible, however, that your child might never use speech to communicate. That doesn't mean he won't ever learn to communicate and live a happy, fulfilling and productive life. Always focus on your child's gifts.

Here are five ways parents can help improve speech and communication skills.

Engage your child. Sit on the floor and play with your young child. Try to revolve your play time around your child's interests and use this time to communicate with him or her. Your child will see how communication works.

Encourage social interaction. The more social interactions your child has, the more he will see active communication. When talking to your child, get down on his level and make eye contact (even for a few seconds) to help him connect with what you are saying.

Incorporate nonverbal communication in activities and tasks. Many people find using pictures help, for example, create cards with pictures of different food items, such as juice, milk, cookies, crackers, sandwich. When your child wants something, he can choose the card and give it to you. Besides using pictures, use gestures when you are communicating, such as clapping, pointing or outstrectching your arms when you want something. Encourage your child to use these gestures. You can also use apps that have pictures cards and other visual supports for communication.

Allow your child time to communicate. You know your child and might instinctively know what he wants without any communication or you might proactively tend to his needs without him asking. Instead, ask, "Do you want some cookies?" and give your child a chance to nod his head or get a card to show you what he wants.

Start small. If your child is nonverbal, use one-word communication whenever possible, for example, state the name of the snack or toy. If your child is using one word to communicate, begin talking using phrases of two or three words. Use his current communication as a guide and increase it a little in your own communication.

Remember to reward your child for any communication, no matter how small. Respond immediately if he talks or shows you what he wants. You want to give positive reinforcement and let him see the benefits of communicating with you and others.


"Advice for Parents of Young Autistic Children," 2012, James B. Adams et al, Autism Research Insititute

"Early Intervention Could Help Autistic Children Learn to Speak," 2012, July 17, Marissa Fessenden, Scientific American

"Interventions to Improve Communication," 2008, Rhea Paul, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America

"Many Nonverbal Children with Autism Overcome Severe Language Delays," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Autism Speaks

"Speech Emerges in Children on the Autism Spectrum with Severe Language Delay at Greater Rate than Previously Thought," 2013, March 4, Kennedy Krieger Institute

"Study of Nonverbal Autism Must Go Beyond Words, Experts Say," 2013, Sept 2, Sarah DeWeerdt, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative

"A Systematic Review of Early Intensive Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorders," 2011, Zachery Warren et al, Pediatrics, Vol 127, 1303-1311