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Communication Strategies for Non-Verbal Children 

Aug 17th, 2020 | by Maria De Leon, MS, SLP
Maria De Leon, MS, SLP

Maria De Leon, MS, SLP

August 17th, 2020

A child that is termed non-verbal or minimally verbal uses no or few consistent words to communicate. We know how difficult it can be to figure out children’s wants and needs when they are not using their speech to express themselves. The good news is that even though non-verbal children are not using words to communicate, it doesn’t mean they are not trying to communicate. We are all social beings that crave social connections in one way or another, and all we need is to find a way to do so.   

Total Communication Approach  

How to get started? You can use the Total Communication Approach by accepting and using all forms of communication verbal and non-verbal (i.e., vocalizations, eye gaze, facial expressions, gestures, sign language, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), etc.). Our goal is for children to feel understood, even if they cannot use their voice to speak. 

Importance of Prelinguistic Skills  

Research in early child development has demonstrated that long before children learn how to produce speech, they communicate with eye gaze, vocalizations, gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Having these prelinguistic abilities lead to positive language outcomes. Additionally, being able to read these non-verbal means of communication may help us better understand what a non-verbal child might want to communicate. It is crucial to remember that every child is different and that sometimes a child may need some instruction to learn how to use these skills to communicate.  

Try these strategies: 

  • Use prelinguistic skills during your daily routines. You can use gestures, facial expressions, and eye gaze during mealtimes by modeling and providing opportunities for the child to imitate and communicate. For example, pausing between bites gives the child time to ask for more food or to get your attention. The child can use eye gaze (i.e., looking at an object and then looking back you), vocalizations (ah, ma,), and gestures (pointing, waving arms, moving a limb), etc. After the child gives you the action, reward them immediately so they can start making the connections between action/item and words. 

  • Use pictures or real objects to communicate. Using pictures/objects is an excellent strategy to incorporate choice making. Making choices gives the child a sense of independence and may reduce frustration because it allows them to have some control.  For example, you can present two pictures of their preferred objects or display the objects themselves. When we show the pictures or objects, we want to hold them close to our face and accept any form of communication (signs, vocalizations, eye gaze, gesture, etc.) Once the child understands the skill, we can use it to communicate various things in different environments. These are some examples of choices: “Which book would you like to read?” “Would you like to use crayons or paint today?” “Would you like to eat oranges or apples?” “What shirt would you like to wear today?” etc. 
  • Use a simple recordable button switch. This device is a switch where a message is recorded, and when activated, it plays back the recording. You can find affordable options for this button-voice recording device online.

Here are some examples of how to use the switch to communicate with a non-verbal child:

  • During storytime, select books with phrases that repeat themselves and record a word or phrase to have the child fill in the line of a repetitive story. The same idea can be used for music time.
  • During playtime, you can use the button to build up anticipation and create meaningful interactions with the child. For example, during a tickle game, you can record “go” and wait for the child to activate the button. You can use the recording “go” for swinging, knocking down towers, etc. In the beginning, the child might not understand the connection between hitting the button and something happening, and this is ok. With extensive modeling and practice, the connections will begin forming. 

Key Takeaways 

It is important to remember that we all have the desire to communicate, and we all do so in our ways. Prelinguistic or non-verbal communication is a rich form of communication that is the basis for symbolic and efficient communication development. Ensuring that non-verbal children are being understood increases their likelihood of success and reduces any frustrations that may arise from not being able to communicate. 

If you have questions about prelinguistic skills, switches for non-verbal children or would like more information on how to get started, get in touch with your speech language pathologist. Additionally, feel free to contact NAPA’s Pediatric Speech Therapy Program for a free consultation with one of our speech language pathologists. We specialize in early language development, AAC and treat a diverse range of diagnoses. We are here to help – reach out anytime!   

Further Reading & Resources: 

About the Author  

Maria De Leon is a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) at NAPA Center, with more than five years in the special education field. She has worked with a variety of families to help children reach their highest potential. She has a specialization in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and a passion for advocating for individuals with communicative disorders. She loves coffee and, on the weekend, you can find her catching up on tv shows with her kitty and puppy. 

References: 

  • Malloy, Peggy. (2009). “Teaching Prelinguistic Communication. Practice Perspectives— 
  • Highlighting Information on Deaf-Blindness”. National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness (NCDB). https://eric-ed-gov.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/?id=ED531766 
  • Watson, LR., & Flippin, M. (2008) “Language outcomes for young children with autism spectrum Disorders”. ASHA Leader 13(7): 8–12. https://leader.pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/leader.FTR1.13072008.8
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