Understanding Non-Vocal Autism

Milestones for children diagnosed with autism may be different from their neurotypical peers. Communication deficits are not uncommon in children with ASD, but as they age, you may notice that your child doesn’t communicate much. You may even begin to wonder if your child with autism will ever talk at all.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina estimated that in 2013, 25-50% of children diagnosed with ASD were nonverbal[ i ]. However, the term “nonverbal” is not accurate; verbal behavior includes crying, using sign language, and using a device to communicate. The term accepted by ABA practitioners, therefore, is non-vocal.

The study of non-vocal autism is still developing, along with different methods to help your child communicate.

Children diagnosed with ASD non-vocal

Defining Non-Vocal Autism

Non-vocal autism, also sometimes referred to as nonspeaking autism, is a subset of ASD in which a child does not develop spoken language beyond a few words or noises.

Sometimes, the intelligence level of children with non-vocal autism is misjudged. Because the child is either unable to communicate or is misunderstood, it can lead to a higher likelihood of negative interactions with peers. While very little is known about the cause of it, it is believed that children with non-vocal autism often understand more than they are able to communicate.

Children diagnosed with ASD non-vocal

Defining Non-Vocal Autism

Non-vocal autism, also sometimes referred to as nonspeaking autism, is a subset of ASD in which a child does not develop spoken language beyond a few words or noises.

Many assumptions are made about the intelligence level of children with non-vocal autism. Because the child is either unable to communicate or is misunderstood, it can lead to a higher likelihood of negative interactions with peers. While very little is known about the cause of it, it is believed that children with non-vocal autism often understand more than they are able to communicate.

Communication Options for Non-Vocal Autism

Mother and father playing with their non-speaking autistic child

Use Your Whole Body

Neurotypical people use gestures all the time in order to communicate. Focus on things such as nodding and pointing, encouraging your child to do the same. Use other bodily gestures, such as clapping when something good occurs or making a frown when something negative occurs.

Eye contact could also be useful, however, most children with ASD cannot maintain eye contact.

Kids at The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis playing

Encourage Play and Social Interaction

Most neurotypical children develop communication skills through play. Playtime can also be beneficial for children with ASD, as it allows them to touch different objects and fill sensory needs. Sorting and matching games can be used to help them understand patterns and repetition.

Mom and autistic daughter using imitation to communicate at the The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis

Using Imitation

Try repeating or imitating your child’s actions and encouraging them to do the same. For example, if your child is making a “meow” noise, make a “meow” noise with them. If your child is building a tower with blocks, build a tower next to theirs.

This works best at the child’s level so that they can see your mouth and hand gestures more clearly. However, if your child has difficulty looking at you, position yourself in such a way that they can still see your face.

Music can also be useful to encourage imitation, especially if the song repeats lyrics. If the song is played often enough, try pausing it to see if your child can fill in what comes next.

Non vocal autistic child using The Cardinal Center's assistive devices to help her communicate

Using Visual Supports and Assistive Devices

There is a wide range of technology available to help bridge the communication gap between your child with non-vocal autism and others around them.

Picture cards which portray everyday events or objects can be displayed in a prominent place for your child to see. School age children may already use picture schedules as part of their day. Once an activity has occurred, allow the child to remove it from the schedule. This also helps them with transitions between activities.

Digital tools such as tablets can be loaded with apps or software that use digital picture cards. Others digital tools can be programmed with simple words that the child could tap on to speak for them or use to indicate a need, such as using the restroom.

Mother and daughter using visual supports for non-vocal children

How ABA Therapy Can Help

ABA therapy focuses on teaching children to develop communication skills that will allow them to become more independent. Therapy can be tailored to the individual needs of the child, including if that child has non-vocal autism. Learn more about ABA therapy at the Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis.

Mother and daughter using visual supports for non-vocal children

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