Non-speaking is the new terminology for nonverbal in regard to autism, but why? How do you communicate with your nonverbal child?
Why non-speaking instead of nonverbal?
Non-speaking autistic people decided on the term non-speaking instead of nonverbal, because nonverbal means you don’t have any words at all.
Non-speaking means that you simply don’t speak, which is more accurate. Autistic people have words, they simply do not speak them. Sometimes, they do struggle with the words but this is not the same as not having words.
Therefore, non-speaking is a more appropriate term. Language does matter, especially since autistic people tend to think literally and process context literally.
Why don’t nonverbal autistic children speak?
Verbal communication takes longer to process. Information goes to the brain, which has to process verbal information into information that it can understand and comprehend. Once it does comprehend the verbal speech, the brain then has to convert it into what the person is going to say.
Whereas non-autistic people may speak effortlessly, without even thinking of speaking, autistic people often take more time to form the words and process the language.
Honestly, speaking takes a lot of energy. I am an intermittently non-speaking autistic person, and verbal communication requires so much more of my energy that I am exhausted even from a simple greeting.
Non-autistic communication relies on small talk, which is essentially talking just to talk, whereas autistic people tend to not say anything if they don’t feel like they have anything to say.
Scripting may play a part in intermittently non-speaking autistic people, because it is safer to refrain from saying anything if you don’t have a script for it, then to use a script and it be the wrong context.
3 tips to communicating with your non-speaking autistic child
Communicating with an autistic child when you are not autistic yourself is difficult. Communicating with a non-speaking autistic child is even more difficult, because there are now two language barriers.
Luckily, we can remedy this.
Something to remember about your non-speaking child
Don’t expect your autistic child to say words for you anytime soon.
First and foremost, you need to accept them for who they are today, right now. Otherwise, you’re going to turn around, they’ll be grown, and you might regret the time you spent wishing the situation was different.
Your child wants to communicate with you. They’re your child! Your child’s brain processes language and information differently than yours, so neither of you are operating on the same perception of life.
1. Use visuals for schedules and tasks.
Instead of relying on labels and charts, use illustrations or pictures. These are neurodivergent-friendly for any autistic child.
For example, if you have buckets labeled, add pictures of what belongs inside. This will help them clean up and learn to put things where they go. Visual schedules instead of words will help with general transitions.
Additionally, being able to point to a visual picture of something will give you both a way to communicate with each other about those things.
For example, if you made the following flashcards:
- The family cat
- Your autistic child’s favorite blanket (soft)
- A ball of cat fur
- Sun or something warm
- Illustration of cat vibrating (purring)
- A happy kitty
- A sleepy kitty
Then you could teach them a song that you “sing” together! In this case, those flashcards form “Soft Kitty”.
2. Sign language
Perhaps one of the most common methods of communicating with a non-autistic child is sign language.
Younger children may not be interested in learning sign language, but it is important to continue to try. Sign language opens communication between their family and an entire community of people who sign. It also helps them develop communication and language skills.
Even if they don’t want to, you should still work with your non-speaking autistic child to teach them signs.
If they struggle because of their body, it is still worth trying while using another communication method, just in case.
Make sure you are signing every time you communicate with them, or they are in the vicinity of you communicating with someone else. Otherwise, they will see sign language as optional.
Children imitate the people around them, so the best way for them to learn sign language is to see you doing it on a regular basis. Show them is it a normal way to communicate.
3. Gestures and pointing
If your kid uses gestures and pointing with you, it means they are trying to communicate. It is also a good precursor into signing.
While gestures and pointing work short-term, they should not be used long-term. Only respond to your child by signing and speaking together.
In the long run, gesturing is not going to help them communicate with people their age as a widespread form of communication.
Will they ever speak?
Maybe. No one knows for sure, and it’s not something that you should hold on to. Speaking is not the only way to communicate with people, and plenty of individuals in the world do not speak yet still communicate.
Most of neurotypical communication stems from nonverbal communication, which is from body language and the way someone behaves while they’re talking. Yet, when autistic people engage in nonverbal communication, they are pathologized or seen as communicating abnormally. Just because they don’t speak in addition to nonverbal communication doesn’t make it wrong or abnormal.
It’s only a different form of communication.
Your non-speaking autistic child might start talking one day. Until then, adapt and accommodate to their communication method. You might just find it makes your world a little bit brighter and helps you think about everything in a different way.
Is your autistic child non-speaking? How do you communicate? Share about it in the comments below.