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During the first year of life, children are watching, listen, and imitating what they see and hear. By the end of their first year, most typically developing children have a handful of words that they use to communicate their needs. “Mama,” “baba,” “juice,” “doggie,” and “dada” are a few of the words that you might hear depending on your child’s likes and wants.
By the end of their second year of life, most typically developing children are stringing words together to form short sentences such as: “give me that” or “I want milk.”
By age three, typically developing children will have a greater sense of self-awareness, and they will start asking questions that begin with “why” or “what.” They may even start using pronouns in their speech.
But, what if a child reaches the age of three, and there is little to no verbal communication? Well, for some children, delayed speech could be associated with an outside factor like being bilingual, developmentally delayed, or even being the youngest in a large family where all of the older siblings are talking for the child. For others, this may be the first indicator that leads to a diagnosis of autism. It is important to know what indicators to look for, so you can determine whether or not you should be concerned enough to seek out a professional evaluation.
Signs & Symptoms of Nonverbal Autism
If a child is non-verbal due to autism, they are part of the 25% of people with autism who cannot speak or communicate with others.
If your child is a toddler, and he/she has not reached the speech milestones for his/her particular age, it would be wise to visit your pediatrician to discuss these concerns. There are some other signs that indicate a speech problem in children with autism.
Non-verbal toddlers with autism will show symptoms such as:
- Using gestures to communicate (pointing, shaking the head, stomping, reaching, etc.)
- Often fail to respond to their name.
- Creating noises to gain attention.
- Making eye contact with you rather than call out.
- Imitating gestures and facial expressions.
Although children with autism cannot use words to communicate, it does not mean that they will not find another way to express what they want or need. Nonverbal children with autism simply lack the ability to express what they want and need with words.
Why Don’t Some Children with Autism Speak?
There isn’t one concrete answer to what causes some children with autism to be nonverbal. The only thing that researchers have found to be a common factor with nonverbal autism is that children who display nonverbal tendencies have low levels of brain activity when it comes to linking objects to their names. For example, looking at a ball may not cause a nonverbal child with autism to think of the word ball.
Another common factor in nonverbal children who have autism is the lack of interaction and communication with others. Many nonverbal children with autism have the ability to develop language and speech by the age of four with early intervention. However, many of these children don’t because of a severe lack of communication and interaction in their early childhood.
How to Help a Non-Verbal Child with Autism to Communicate
The way that children learn to speak is the same, whether they are typically developing or developmentally delayed. They watch, they listen, they imitate, and they are rewarded with reciprocal communication or by gaining access to something they were seeking.
The difference between the typical and the developmentally delayed child is the rate at which they will learn to communicate, and the additional methods that are necessary for a developmentally delayed child. There are only a few children with autism who start out as nonverbal and remain nonverbal. Most children with autism can learn to verbally communicate by the age of four.
Some helpful strategies for encouraging language for nonverbal children with autism include:
Assistive Devices & Visual Aids
This can be things such as PECS boards, apps, first/then boards, visual task lists, and schedules.
Social Interaction & Play
Play with your child or help your child communicate with other children. As you play, narrate what you are doing, and what the other children are doing as it occurs, and ask questions to promote communication. This will help promote language, as well as social skills.
Use anything that interests your child to give them a good reason to communicate. For example, if they love goldfish crackers, hold them up and say to them, “I want goldfish crackers” or to simplify, “goldfish crackers.” When they communicate their needs or wants, congratulate them by giving them what they asked for.
Ask Simple Questions
Ask them to make a decision- this one or that one? If they point, model the answer “that one” and prompt them to repeat “that one.” If it doesn’t work the first time, that’s okay- keep trying, keep talking, and keep modeling.
If a child verbally responds to something, give him/her praise and positive feedback. “Wow! You said that so clearly! I love when you talk to me.”
Get Their Attention & Look At Them When You Speak
When they give you their attention and make eye contact, communicate, praise, and prompt them to respond to questions or conversation.
Read To Them
Nothing models language and speech better than a good reader who reads slowly, clearly, and with expression. Let them hear the questions, the exclamations, and the change in mood. Read often, and don’t be afraid to read the same books. Remember the old adage: “Repetition is the mother of learning.”
How to Find Help for Non-Verbal Children with Autism
Good parenting is number one when it comes to teaching language and communication. Even with typically developing children, there is a notable difference in children who are spoken to and read to at home versus the children who do not have substantial interaction or reading time with parents at home.
For children with autism who are not developing speech and language, a speech therapist might be necessary to start developing communication skills.
ABA therapy can help to encourage all of the work that is being done in speech therapy and reinforce the communication skills that you and your child are practicing at home. Additionally, ABA can help to teach your child how to communicate with a PECS board or by using gestures while slowly encouraging verbal skills.
Circle Care Services can help guide you as a parent as you teach your child how to communicate and use speech effectively. Our team has the experience and the skills that you and your family need to support your child with autism who is struggling with communication.
If you live in the New Jersey area, give us a call for a free consultation. We can help.
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