Non-Verbal Communication Skills in Children with Autism

speechApril is Autism Awareness Month, and a great opportunity to learn more about communication development in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“When will she start using words?”

“I know there are words in there!”

“I just want him to talk!”

Many parents have a goal for their children with Autism to speak. Some parents have even been told that if their child does not begin talking by the age of 4 or 5, they may never become verbal. But recent research suggests that most children who were diagnosed with severe language delays in early childhood developed language at or after age 4 (read about it here). The study found that better social skills and cognitive skills were the factors most associated with the development of spoken language.

In an earlier post, we discussed the important pre-language skills that develop before children learn to talk. Shared attention, engagement, and two-way communication, along with play skills and social skills, are vital steps on the path to spoken language. Make sure you’re acknowledging the often-subtle communication your child is showing before words emerge.

Signs of non-verbal communication:

  • Looking when his/her name is called
  • Sharing eye gaze with you
  • Pulling an adult toward a desired object
  • Gesturing for more of preferred activities (e.g., leaning in for tickling)
  • Initiating songs and games (e.g., “Ring Around the Rosie,” “Pat-A-Cake”)
  • Reaching for an object
  • Accepting an object from you
  • Imitating someone else’s play (e.g., pushing a car after watching you do it)
  • Following simple directions (e.g., “give me,” “roll ball”)

As you observe your child’s non-verbal communication developing, start to implement strategies to support further growth.

Suggestions to increase communication skills:

  • Follow your child’s lead and use preferred toys
  • Use sound effects and environmental noises (e.g., “meow,” “VROOM”)
  • Respond to attempts to communicate
  • Increase facial expression and animation
  • Use anticipatory sequences (e.g., “ready, set, go!”)
  • Label objects in the environment
  • Narrate interactions with simple phrases (e.g., “my turn,” “help me”)
  • Combine talking with gestures
  • Sing songs
  • Use puppets, dolls or animals
  • Experiment with new sensory experiences (e.g., sticky, cold, heavy)
  • Be silly
  • Imitate your child’s sounds and play ideas

Remember that all children with Autism are unique. What works for one family may not work for another. A strategy that is successful today might fail tomorrow. And an idea that doesn’t work right now may became a favorite in the future. Look for subtle signs of communication and reciprocal play, and follow your child’s lead. You know your child best. He may not be talking yet, but he can communicate!

If you have questions about your child’s language development, talk to your pediatrician, or contact a speech-language pathologist.

—Kellie Bouren, M.A. CCC-SLP, Pediatric Speech and Language Pathology Department at the Center for Childhood Speech and Language Disorders

3 Responses to “Non-Verbal Communication Skills in Children with Autism”

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    These are very useful strategies, Kellie. Thank you for giving detailed suggestions and some gentle reassurance as well.

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