Six tips to assist your nonverbal child with autism to find their voice
It's not a job; It's a mission
By Pamela Najor
This blog is written by Centria Autism's Senior Healthcare Writer and mom of 2,
including a 9-year-old son with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The basic functioning level of a child with autism can change from the time of diagnosis throughout their developmental stages especially with the help of evidence-based Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy. This is especially true for those initially assessed as nonverbal.
While speech delay is a core characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there are therapeutic techniques that can be adapted for home use that help a nonverbal child with autism learn to speak.
ABA is the scientifically-validated therapy that helps children on the spectrum work through areas of severe developmental delay, like language and nonverbal communication by breaking down tasks into small, achievable steps with positive reinforcement at each stage.
Although the initial news of a diagnosis of nonverbal ASD can leave parents feeling overwhelmed or disheartened, there is research that serves as solid evidence that many children with autism have the ability to progress past their developmental delays to reach their highest potentials.
Study concludes nonverbal may not be permanent
Some parents of children with ASD have been told that if their child isn't speaking by age 4 or 5, he or she isn't likely to ever speak.
But in 2013, researchers countered this view with a study of 535 children with autism published in the journal Pediatrics that concluded even those with severe language delay—not speaking at all or using only single words or phrases without verbs—at age 4 could develop language skills during grade school or even adolescence. The results of the study determined that 70 percent of those children in the study attained communication of short phrases and 47 percent attained fluent speech at or after age 4.
Working with your child's ABA Therapist—who can help you select and use the best communication strategies—you can contribute daily to an effort that encourages your child's language development.
Some strategic tips to bolster communication
But while you and your therapy team employ such therapy tips, it is also vital to remember each person with autism is unique and they learn to communicate at their own pace and through their own individualized best practices.
Tip One: Play, or "Pair" with your child socially
The first step of ABA Therapy is "pairing," during which a Behavior Technician spends session time playing with a child to connect with that child and learn what he or she would respond most positively to. The same strategy can be used at home. All children learn through play, and that includes learning a language. Some games more than others provide enjoyment as much as opportunities for you and your child to communicate. Any game or activity that promotes social interaction can increase language understanding. Examples include:
- Reciting nursery rhymes
- Gentle wrestling or roughhousing
- Pretend play or acting out favorite scenes
During these interactions, remember to encourage eye-level, face-to-face contact so your child can see you and hear your words as you verbalize, or narrate your shared activity.
Tip Two: Imitate your child
Repeating your child's sounds and positive behaviors will encourage your child to hear or process, if not, attempt to mimic or vocalize your words and reactions. This may eventually lead to your child copying you and learning to take turns, which teaches conversational skills.
As long as your child is behaving in a positive way, don't hesitate to mimic your child even if the sounds are not typical or standard words. If your child taps a drum, do the same while vocalizing the word. But if your child throws a toy car instead of rolls it, don't imitate that.
Tip Three: Nonverbal communication is a key start
Communication begins for babies with gestures and eye contact. Do the same for your nonverbal child at whatever age he or she is starting.
When you model such communication, your child will be encouraged to do the same and respond in kind. It is even beneficial to exaggerate gestures and vocalization in a variety of tones. The more you "act" out your words, the easier it is for your child to process their meaning. For example, nodding your head when you say, "yes," or pointing a finger to an object while excitingly saying, "look," will give context and exemplify the meaning of words.
Remember to reciprocate in the same way. When your child points or gestures to something, respond by reaching for what is pointed to while saying the word for it. That will empower your child by feeling successful at getting his or her message across.
Tip Four: Take time to pause and listen
It is in a parent's DNA to want to help their child and that comes to language-learning too. I found myself in a hurry to verbalize on behalf of my son by providing the words when I anticipated his initial struggles to communicate were on the verge of a meltdown. His psychiatrist once told me in a joint session to try to hear him as much as I talk to him. That was wise advice I will never forget and apply in many situations. As a result, I find I have learned from my son probably more than I've taught him.
Even when there wasn't the potential for a meltdown, I would tend to over-explain something that I thought he wasn't understanding. But it became apparent that I needed to learn his processing ability is different than mine and just because he may not respond right away, didn't mean what I first said wasn't in the process of sinking in.
When you ask a question or notice your child may be in need of something, pause and be ready to respond at their first sound or gesture. The immediacy of your reaction to his effort, even the smallest attempt, will help teach the importance of reciprocal communication.
Tip Five: Start small and simple, then add on
Along the same lines of not over-explaining, it's important to start slow with simple communication. Doing this will help your child follow what you're saying. It also makes it easier for him or her to imitate your speech. If your child is nonverbal, try starting by speaking mostly in single words, not complete sentences. You can then build on simple vocabulary by adding a verb to the noun learned. If your child masters the word for car, pick up a toy car and say, "drive car" while modeling the action and pretending with your hands turning the steering wheel.
Tip Six: Consider "voice" devices or visual supports
In many special needs classes, I've taught where nonverbal kids have not yet found their voice, they depend on technological tablets. Some teachers refer to these as that child's "voice." When there is a struggle, the teacher or parent points to the device and directs the child to "use voice." These help the child communicate through pictures and audible readings of words and phrases.
These devices and apps are accessed through touch and can help your child develop and practice verbalization of words.
Your child's therapists are uniquely qualified to help you select and use these and other strategies to develop language skills. By working with your child's ABA Therapy team, you can help provide the support your child needs to find their "voice."
"Whatever a child's communicative level is, it is important to know that ABA can help an individual share their ‘voice,' even if that is in a non-spoken form," says Brian Kaminski, MA, BCBA.
While ABA can certainly emphasize strengthening ‘vocal' communication, it can also help shape alternative forms of communication like sign language, augmentative communication devices, or a Picture Exchange Communication System, often referred to as PECS.
All of these forms of communication will help ensure a child's needs are being met, they have greater independence, and improved the overall quality of life."
To learn more about how Centria Autism can help you and your family navigate a diagnosis and insurance verification, or treatment of ABA Therapy, please contact our team of specialists at (855) 423-4629.