Life with a child who is nonverbal can be tricky. A parent has to be constantly guessing, translating, and watching.
But a parent also needs to be constantly teaching their child.
A parent plays a very important role in the life of a child who is nonverbal—helping them learn ways to communicate. Sometimes a speech therapist can help in this process.
A great place to start is by establishing a consistent way to communicate “yes” and “no." Whether the with eye movement, nodding and shaking the head, verbalizing sounds, or with gestures or signs, communicating yes/no is a vital skill to have. Yes/No will help ensure the child can make basic choices and voice their wants or needs.
One mom reported how her daughter communicates yes/no as follows:
“She smiles and looks you right in the face for ‘yes.' For ‘no,’ she looks away. As long as people know how she says 'yes' and 'no,' they can communicate with her and give her things she wants.”
Decision-making is another very important skill. Being able to make a choice between options and convey the choice is basic to communication.
For example, giving a child a choice between going to the park or going to the zoo. Sometimes, this choice between two things—also referred to as choosing between A and B—can be done by offering a fist for each choice. A parent (or friend) can offer their right fist as they offer the park and offer their left fist as they offer the zoo. Then the child can either look at the fist that they want or touch the fist that they want.
A teacher explained how this worked for one student:
“His typical friends in the class love to ask him questions and give him choices with their fists held out in front of them. He looks at the fist of his choice, and the kids know they are communicating with him. They caught on really quickly.”
With my daughter, I learned early on the usefulness of thumbs up for approval or to mean “good” and of thumbs down for disapproval or to mean “bad.”
But it wasn’t until recently that I learned the power and usefulness of “so-so,” gestured by shifting the hand side to side. While "good" and "bad" are useful words, there are many times when “so-so” is really the best answer. My daughter has really enjoyed the ability to voice that something is “so-so.”
Having a child who is nonverbal is challenging at times, but there are certainly ways to empower them with some basic communication skills. It oftentimes takes creativity. But it’s worth the effort to teach methods that provide them the ability to interact and communicate with others.
To learn about communication devices, check out the Assistive Technology and Adaptive Equipment on this website.