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Will My Non-verbal ASD Child Ever Speak?

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Every parent looks forward to the day when they will hear the sweet sound of their young child’s voice but what if it doesn’t occur as expected?

There are children born without the capacity to speak. Some of the causes are physical damage to the area of the brain that controls speech or physical injuries to the vocal cords or throat. Surgical procedures can often rectify the situation for children who cannot speak due to a physical impairment. These children and their parents, as well as hearing-impaired children, would have to learn another means of communication – most likely sign language.

non-verbal child with autismThen there is the wide spectrum of developmental disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders that can leave a child speechless. Often there is no physical reason a child with Autism can’t speak. There have been enough stories of children with Autism who are still non-verbal at a late age when one day they suddenly begin to speak or communicate more effectively. So there is always hope, always the potential for speech to take hold – yet . . .  .

When you have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who is non-verbal there always seems to be a black cloud hanging overhead – a constant wondering if you will ever hear your child speak your name or say, “I love you.” These parents wait with great anticipation for a special key that will unlock the door to their child’s world of silence but deal with disappointment on a daily basis when it doesn’t come.

A child who has damage to his vocal cords can’t make his voice heard because it is physically impossible but a child with Autism often has the ability but can’t access it. I hear many parents express concerns about their child’s language ability, or lack of it, and worry that their child will never speak.  They often express a belief that things would be better, “If only my non-verbal child would speak to me.”  Communication is such an important piece when it comes to interacting socially and getting our needs met that these parents fret for their child’s future.  So what is a parent to do?

Here are nine things to think about.

  1. Set realistic expectations.  Accept the fact that your child’s language is non-verbal for now while you strive to teach her to communicate verbally. I encourage you to take a deep breath and relax as you ask yourself if you can truly accept the fact that your child is non-verbal at this time. If you can temporarily let go of the expectation for the use of words and focus on the other ways she can communicate you may be surprised by the results. Children pick up on our tensions, disappointments and anxieties more than we think and this negative energy can inadvertently set up roadblocks for them. Always shoot for the stars but know you can’t get there in one leap, focus on the baby steps and celebrate them as you go.
  2. Motivate your child to use language (with or without words).  You need to make your child ‘have to’ and ‘want to’ communicate. Make your child see the value in communicating, and don’t let her well meaning older siblings speak for her or anticipate her needs. The worse thing a parent can do is to enable their child’s muteness by granting their wishes before they attempt to communicate them. Strongly encourage your child show you a picture, sign or gesture of what he wants or tell him to say it before you give it to him. The trick is to find the right balance between pushing and helping without causing him too much frustration.
  3. Understand that direct teaching is required. The communication challenges that children with ASD face are more complicated than just the development of language. The basic issue is often a lack of understanding that language, verbal or non-verbal, is necessary to communicate with others in the world around you to make things happen. Children who have no developmental delays are typically eager to communicate with others telling them anything and everything but this is not the case for children on the spectrum. What comes naturally for most children has to be taught to a child with ASD in a very structured and explicit manner.
  4. Have patience and duplicate therapies. Early intervention is great but things still take time. Pay attention to your child’s therapists, observe and learn what they do then copy it. Maybe your child’s therapists or teachers are using visual pictures or picture schedules to communicate with your child like the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Whatever they are using to get her to communicate, motivate her to use her the pictures/sign-language/gestures/words at home as well in order to get her needs met.
  5. Don’t compare! Try hard not to contrast your child to others and remember that there are many ways to communicate. We are so conditioned in our society to expect certain things as typical. If your child were deaf you would be equally upset but you would know there was another way to communicate and would simply teach yourself sign language. It is important to play detective and discover your child’s best way of relating and communicating and use it as a foundation to grow language on. Your child is unique and has his own language, discover what that is and learn it. Once you do that, it will be easier for him to learn your way of communicating in order to join your world.
  6. Remember the baby years.  Having a non-verbal child is just as frustrating as when you had an infant that couldn’t tell you what he wanted. BUT then again, this is to be expected from an infant. Spend some time pondering how you came to learn and interpret what your baby’s cries were telling you and stay focused on acquiring a similar understanding of your child’s current expressions, grunts, and atypical vocalizations.
  7. Think outside the box. Expand your definition of communication. It is important to experiment with other modes of communication and add them to the systems that are already in place – you never know when you will strike gold. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices have been proven to be helpful tools for supplementing and expanding ways for children on the Autism spectrum to communicate but always discuss your plans with your child’s speech therapist first.
  8. Document your child’s progress. Maintaining a journal may seem like just one more thing to do but having the ability to go back and read what your child has accomplished in the past six months or year helps. Reflecting back in time is a great way to stay positive and hopeful when you can see the progress that was made.
  9. Understand the connection between language and behavior.  Children on the spectrum often tantrum because they can’t communicate effectively to get their needs met. Just think how frustrating it would be for you to hear a language that is foreign and then feel pressured to use it before you comprehend it’s usefulness. This can be extremely frustrating and often leads to heightened anxiety and stress causing behaviors that are sometimes difficult to deal with. Even children with some language ability resort to anger and meltdown when they can’t communicate their needs effectively.

Always remember that there are many ways we communicate – using words is only one of them. Be prepared to find more patience than you think you have and adjust to the possibility that it may take longer than anticipated – BUT remain forever hopeful. I have worked with many parents who worried about never hearing their child’s voice only to be pleasantly surprised even if only by a few words.

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Comments

  1. My nonverbal 15 yr old had his IEP yesterday – first one in highschool – the SLP said that he looked through his file and could not find any therapist that addressed speech and he had questions about his medical history – wanting to know if he takes meds that make him sleepy.

    He wants me to get my son an Exam by ENT to check to see if his vocal folds are paralyzed and if there is a threat of aspiration.

    I looked through the assessments from when my son was in preschool and no one has ever mentioned this before. Most want to teach sign language or talk about his behavior and eye contact, so this was very surprising. Plus the fact that school started in Sept and the SLP never made contact once through the school year so this was our first meeting and he brings this up.

    During my searches on vocal folds this article came up. My son is not toilet trained and was drinking a bottle until a year ago thanks to ABA since five years of feeding therapy did not stop that.

    He is on Geodon and burps constantly and seems to inhale his food and not chew properly.

  2. Connie says:

    It’s a shame that it took so long for someone to pick up on this – better late then never as they say. I don’t see the article you are referring to but keep doing your research and never stop advocating for him – keep making your voice heard, it’s the best gift you can give your son.

  3. Heather says:

    Bonnie, it’s heartwarming to hear that at age 15 you can still find new paths to follow, new things to look up, new articles to read, and new things to try and you’re never locked into one type of therapy, one treatment path. My twins with autism are still very young, so I appreciate stories like these. I’m blessed that both of my twins are verbal now (though were delayed) and score high in the expressive and receptive areas (though super low in pragmatics). But this article has lots in it that can apply not just to speech, but to teaching adaptive skills as well (such as teaching my twins to get dressed)— especially #3, #4, and #7. Another great article Connie, thanks!

  4. Connie says:

    Thank you for the kind comments Heather and I am glad you can generalize the tips in this article to other uses. It is important to always see new possibilities and I thank Bonnie for inspiring you with her story. I love personal stories so please keep us updated Bonnie.

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