How to communicate with people who are non-verbal
“Just because a person can’t speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.” This is a very important reminder from a parent of a non-verbal child. Communication is a basic human need, allowing people to connect with others, make decisions that affect their lives, express feelings and feel part of the community they live in.
People with little or no speech still have the same communication needs as the rest of us. We may just have to work a bit harder to find a communication strategy that works.
There are a number of things that we can do to improve communication with and for non-verbal children. In this article, The following tips and ideas for families and professionals have all been shared by members of the charity Scope’s online community. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, some of these suggestions might give you ideas to try.
1. Make it mean something
Katie can clap her hands, so we have taught her to clap when she wants to say yes.
2. Level it up
Playing and talking are easier if you can see each other. Sit so you are at the same level.
3. Talk about it
Eddy can’t speak and also has limited understanding but it is important to keep talking to him about what’s going on.
4. Eye contact
I put stickers on my forehead as a target for my son to look at. This reminds him to look at people’s faces, so people feel more like he is engaging with them.
5. It has meaning – it’s just not obvious
We treat every non-verbal indication as a communication and try to work out what Gaby is trying to say to us.
6. Use mirrors
If looking directly into your eyes is too invasive for the person you’re supporting, try using mirrors to see if they can look at you that way.
7. Do you want X or Y?
When I am out and about with my non-verbal son, I say “do you want X” (tapping my hand in one spot) “or Y” (tapping my hand in another). He then selects a spot. We use it for all sorts of communication now – not just choices.
8. Find other means of expression
Give your child an opportunity to express themselves. Dance, music, drawing, painting, messing with textures, banging drums, shaking maracas can all be good – and join in too. Don’t be afraid to lay down with them on the carpet and see the world from their point of view.
9. Puppets and singing
Often, children on the autistic spectrum do not communicate with other people or make eye contact. Yet they can, and do, communicate – often verbally – with a puppet or even their pets. Some children find singing a delight and can sing wonderfully even though they use very little verbal communication. Use these strengths as an aid to interaction.
10. Create social stories
I have been creating my own social stories using pictures of my son and clip art images. I have then typed up our own personalised stories.
11. Make flash cards
Take photos of a non-verbal person’s favourite toys, family members or objects (perhaps a cup or a biscuit) Choose the most motivating items to begin with. Print and laminate them postcard size. Giving a choice of no more than three cards at a time, encourage them to choose by pointing or touching. It may also be helpful to put the relevant sign on the back of the photo as a reference for others.
12. Carry a surprise card
If you have a child with autism or Asperger’s, it’s worth carrying a “surprise” card with you for unplanned situations (like unannounced fire drills). On the card, have a surprise symbol (an exclamation mark) and “SURPRISE! We are going to x, y, z” (your child’s favourite place).
13. Instant mobile photographs
Don’t forget to make best use of your mobile (if it has a camera) – it’s a fabulous instant device to use as a photo communication tool.
We are so glad we taught Zoe to use [signing]. Although she can’t yet say any words, signing relieves any frustration no end – she can tell us what she wants, and the signs we use help her understand what we say. It takes a while but it’s really worth sticking with.
15. Objects of reference
Objects of reference are a great way of helping people with profound learning disabilities and/or other sensory impairments to understand the world around them. Use an object to symbolise the activity they are about to participate in, such as a fork for dinner or a towel for bath.
16. Word bubbles
Carrie likes cartoons. We use cartoons with speech bubbles to make information more accessible for her.
17. Communication passports
A communication passport is a one-page document that the child has with them all of the time. It gives the people they meet basic information about how they communicate and what support they need.
18. Communication books and charts
Some children can learn to make choices by pointing to a symbol and/or a word in a communication book or on a communication chart. They might be able to point with a fist or a finger or they might be able to point with their eyes or with a head pointer.
Emma Sterland is Digital Community Specialist at the charity Scope.
The tips above have been contributed to Scope’s online community by parents of children with disabilities and SEN: