One of the biggest worries of parents with non-verbal autistic children is that they’ll never talk. They become even more worried when the child hits 4 or 5 years and has yet to start talking. .
The reality is that most non-verbal autistic children do eventually talk, though not all achieve fluent speech.
A 2013 study found that a majority of non-verbal children eventually developed speech by the age of 8.
Around half of these late talkers were able to speak fluently while the other half developed phrase speech where they talk in 2-word phrases.
The conclusion of the research team was that intensive speech and behavioural therapy efforts do pay off. You just have to be patient and persistent.
So if your autistic child is still non-verbal, do not give up. In addition to therapy, here’s what else you can do to help them along.
Focus on Social Cognition
Dr. Wodka, a paediatric neuropsychologist involved in the study, explained that autism is not a language disorder.
Rather, it is a social communication disorder.
It’s not that an autistic child cannot talk; it’s that they don’t understand the need to communicate with other people and don’t even know how to.
It is an inability to express their feeling and emotions to others.
That’s why therapists focus a lot on teaching children how to be expressive and interact with other people.
Over time, they begin to learn important aspects of social communication.
They learn how to express their own feelings and ideas and how to interpret other people’s expressions. They learn how to ask for something or reply to a question.
It’s a lot of work but you’ll eventually get there.
Beyond therapy sessions, help your child at home to improve their social skills.
The best way to do this is through interactive play. Do something fun together like drawing, painting, playing with toys or playing a board game.
Here are other ideas:
- Show them how it’s done. One of the best ways they can learn how to interact with others is watching you interact with others. So keep in mind that they are watching whenever you are with other people.
- When you get a chance, explain some of the interactions such as saying hi, hugging a friend or waving goodbye. When they understand why you did something, they are more likely to do it themselves.
- Reduce the amount of time they spend on solo play. It’s easy for autistic children to get lost in a solo game such as a video game. Focus more on interactive games like singing, board games and dancing.
Teach your child to imitate you by imitating them.
When you are interacting with them, imitate whatever they do (but only if it is positive) and even exaggerate it a bit.
If they make certain sounds, make them too. If they make a face, make it too. If they roll on the ground, do it too.
Imitation will encourage them to also imitate your talking and interactions.
Start with Non-verbal Communication
A child doesn’t have to talk to communicate. Non-verbal communication such as gestures and facial expressions is just as important.
Do not rush into trying to make your child vocalise her communication. Instead, build a foundation using non-verbal methods.
An easy one that is easy to teach them is pointing.
Start by pointing at the stuff you are talking about. Then encourage them to also point at whatever they want. For instance when choosing between the red or blue sweater.
Other gestures include nodding and shaking your head, clapping and raising your hands.
As they get used to expressing their needs through non-verbal communication, it will be easier to transition to verbal interactions.
Use Simple and Literal Language
At the beginning, speak to your child in single words like ‘ball’, ‘eat’, ‘play’ and so on. It’s much easier for a child to imitate such simple language.
Once they begin speaking in single words, start speaking in short phrases of 2 or 3 words.
Something else that many parents don’t realise is that you have to use literal language.
It’s surprising how big of a role metaphors, sarcasm, idioms and jokes are play in normal conversations.
But to an autistic child, even one who has started talking, they might as well be a completely different language.
When you are talking to them, speak literally. No riddles, no teasing and no hidden meanings. If you need them to do something, say exactly what it is. If you are asking a question, be straightforward.
Ask other family members to do this as well.
With time, some autistic kids do get the ability to understand things like idioms and sarcasm. But it takes time.