How to help a Non-Verbal Autistic Child to Communicate?


Autistic Child
My child can't tell me what he wants! He just grunts, screams or cries and I just don't know how to help him! This is one of the most common and frustrating concerns heard from parents of non-verbal children who have autism spectrum disorders. When a non-verbal child cannot express his needs or desires, it can cause feelings of inadequacy, anger and frustration. This inability to communicate also frequently leads to inappropriate outbursts, meltdowns or tantrums. While difficult enough to cope with this at home, when meltdowns happen in public environments, the reactions can be even more exacerbated, for both parent and child. Strangers stare uncomfortably, wrongly assuming that the child is a disobedient, spoiled brat, and that his mother is a terrible parent for allowing her kid to roll around the grocery store floor, stomping feet and screaming loudly. But the reality is the complete opposite the child is simply being unheard, and that poor mother just wants to put her coat over her head and disappear into the ice cream aisle to cry.

Communication is an essential part of any society. The inability to verbally communicate is one of the most common deficits in children on the autism spectrum. Fortunately, there are several alternatives to communicating verbally, from the more sophisticated technology-assisted communication devices, to the simpler picture icon communication boards. Whatever communication method you choose to use, your child can quickly learn to appropriately express his intentions to parents, siblings, teachers, friends, doctors, and therapists. And when your child can tell you what he would like to eat for lunch today, or can tell his teacher he needs some quiet time, he will feel empowered, understood, calm and confident, and the people he is communicating with will be able to comprehend, and happily comply, to his needs, avoiding the excruciating process of trial and elimination.

One of the most successful methods used in helping autistic children communicate is the Picture Exchange Communication System commonly referred to as PECS. This innovative method is based on the understanding that people with autism often think in pictures. The basic idea is that children can exchange a picture to either express what they need or to obtain something they want. PECS can be implemented using technology, such as on a computer or Ipad, which can be set up with a collection of picture icons representing things the child commonly wants or needs. Most people develop their programs categorically, such as one frame having all food icons, another consisting of daily living functions, as well as family members, feelings, and activities. The advantage of using the technology-assisted PECS is that it can help facilitate language, as well as to communicate needs. For example, if a parent asks a child what he would like for lunch, the child is presented with the tech device that has a display of various lunch choices. When the child touches his choice, perhaps he wants macaroni and cheese, the computer's auditory function will verbalize macaroni and cheese, or can be set up as I want macaroni and cheese. (It should be noted that many schools may help absorb the cost of a technology-assisted communication device, so it is worthwhile inquiring about this.)

A less complex, but equally effective PECS, is the simple communication board. This can be hand-constructed or created using a computer. Many people display this simple PECS in a binder or photograph album, but can also be made on just a rectangular piece of cardboard (Watch this youtube video for ideas). Icons can be either hand-drawn, or produced from any picture application on a computer, then just printed out, cut to size, laminated and then adhered into a portable binder with Velcro for easy transfer. Again, these icons should be sorted and displayed in categories to make finding icons less frustrating for the child. A good suggestion is to make a laminated strip on the front of the binder that says I want __________. In the blank space should be a square of Velcro so the child can chose the desired icon and simply place it in the blank. To encourage language, the person the child is communicating with should always verbalize the need by saying I want ice cream.

It is critically important, with whatever communication system a non-verbal child uses, to always encourage the child to either give eye contact when presenting an icon, or at least be facing you. If the child doesn't attend during this communication process, and randomly chooses any icon to a specific question, such as giving you the book icon to the question of What would you like to eat for snack? then you should verbally address the child with Do you want a book for snack? and then depending on the child's cognitive abilities, either redirect him to chose the appropriate icon, or teach him to shake his head no and then ask him the question again, physically directing his hand toward an appropriate icon. PECS is an extremely effective communication alternative and most children learn it quickly with practice and consistency. It is best, when a child first uses any PECS, that you create a simple PECS board with only limited icons, and as he becomes more familiar with the procedure, more icons can be added.

There are many more assisted communication methods available, and discussing these choices with your child's special education teachers is recommended to help you explore them. It is also extremely important to get your child started with a communication device as young as possible. Children on the autism spectrum truly struggle with many components of communication skills, and his failure to express his intentions almost always results in tremendous frustration. And because he cannot appropriately articulate this frustration, this manifests into uncontrollable tantrums, inappropriate behaviors, or even worse, he completely shuts down. Everyone deserves to be heard, and whether it be verbally, using sign language, or by presenting simple picture icons, communication is a basic, yet vital, part of life.

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Here are some more Ideas for Instructing Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: beyondpenguins.ehe.osu.edu

Recommended Resources:

Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew : A Review on Amazon: I found this book to be , sensitive, funny, realistic, compassionate, practical and very, very useful. It tells it like it is and is not jargony like many others. It is just the right size and explains things so clearly which is a blessing. I have two children with autism and this really helps.

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

Disclaimer: The suggestions in the article(wherever applicable) are for informational purposes only. They are not intended as medical or any other type of advice