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What Is Nonverbal Communication in Autism?

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Having nonverbal autism is not a diagnosis. Instead, it describes a set of symptoms under the Autism Spectrum Disorder umbrella. 

In fact, at Heartlinks ABA, we hesitate to use the term nonverbal because it is inaccurate. It implies the child can only use a few words or doesn’t speak at all. 

Many experts in the field of autism feel that the term perpetuates an incorrect assumption that nonspeaking children on the spectrum cannot use words.  

This isn’t true. We’ve taught many young clients labeled nonverbal to learn to communicate effectively using other methods. 

It’s also important to remember that even with the complete absence of language, this does not mean that a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder isn’t communicating. Nor does it mean they’re any less intelligent or won’t be able to lead full and happy lives.

Heartlinks offers a range of ABA therapies at all three locations that can be customized to meet your child’s unique needs. Whether they’re struggling with language development or are altogether nonspeaking, there is help!

Man Teaching Nonverbal Child During ABA Therapy

What is nonverbal autism?

Approximately 25 to 30% of autistic people are categorized as either nonspeaking or minimally speaking.

An autistic person that doesn’t use speech to communicate is considered to have nonverbal autism. 

This doesn’t mean nonverbal children don’t communicate. Instead, they might express themselves using gestures, sounds, or behavioral responses.

Typically, young children use their first words at around 12 to 18 months. By comparison, children with autism spectrum disorder begin to speak at 36 months. This speech delay is one of the first indications that a child may be autistic.

Usually, a child with Autism Spectrum disorder who is not speaking by age four is believed to have nonverbal autism. 

Examples of nonverbal autism might include trouble using words to communicate desires or needs, difficulty understanding language, speaking in short phrases, or using single words.

Other examples of nonverbal autism include children with limited eye contact, difficulties with social interaction, and minimal nonverbal communication skills. 

What are the early signs of nonverbal autism?

It is crucial to identify nonverbal autism in a child as soon as possible. 

Early intervention and subsequent therapy is the best way of achieving long-term communication. Though it’s not easy to identify the early signs of autism in younger children, a few of the following signs may point to nonverbal autism. They are:

  • No giggling or babbling by the first 12 months
  • No reaction when someone calls their name by 12 months
  • Unable to point at objects at 14 months of age
  • Not meeting developmental milestones for language and speech
  • Rocking their body or flapping their hands for comfort
  • Regression of language and speech
  • Preferring to be alone and avoiding eye contact

How do you diagnose nonverbal autism?

Remember, Autism is a neurological development disorder that affects how people interact with their environment. Differences in communication, behavior, and social interaction identify it. 

At Heartlinks ABA, we often remind parents that a spectrum defines autism. Everyone with Autism Spectrum Disorder will have different strengths, needs, and skills.

Being able to diagnose nonspeaking or nonverbal autism is a multi-step process.

Your child’s pediatrician may be the first healthcare professional to evaluate them for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The doctor may order a series of tests to help eliminate any other causes or explanations for your child’s behaviors. They might include blood tests, imagining tests, including an MRI or CT scan, and a physical exam.

They may run autism-specific tests, including the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale, Third Edition (GARS-3), and the Autism Diagnostic Observation schedule.

Your pediatrician might also refer you to a developmental pediatrician. They specialize in treating neurological developmental disorders such as autism.

They may also request additional tests, including the following:

  • A complete medical history of the child and their parents
  • A detailed breakdown of surgeries, medical treatments, and hospitalizations since the child was born
  • A review of the mother’s pregnancy to highlight any issues or complications that arose during that time.

What are other forms of communication?

Children with autism spectrum disorder can still express themselves without possessing traditional language skills. Today there is a range of augmentative alternative communication options available, including the following:

Woman Celebrating With a Child During ABA Therapy
  • Gestures (i.e., sign language or body language)
  • Facial expressions
  • Pointing to letters to spell out words
  • Writing
  • Using an electronic device to generate speech or help in communication.
  • Drawing 

If children with Autism Spectrum Disorder learn some verbal skills, many develop the ability to form sentences, spell, and communicate with language. Therefore, they can write or type even if they’re technically nonverbal.

What types of support and therapy are available?

At Heartlinks ABA, our nonverbal clients’ support and therapy aim to foster communication.  We offer traditional science-backed approaches, including ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). 

But there are also other therapeutic options to consider in addition to ABA. They include the following.

Speech therapy

Speech therapy with a Speech Language Pathologist can help unearth potential verbal communication abilities. They can also help you find the most appropriate communication method with your child.

Animal-assisted therapy

Animal Assisted therapy, such as service dogs for children with autistic spectrum disorder, can foster communication and engagement with others.

Music therapy

Working with a specially trained therapist in music therapy can encourage a child with nonverbal autism to express themselves through music. 

Nonverbal therapy is available.

At Heartlink, parents often ask, “Will my child ever speak?” Perhaps. No one has a definite answer. 

Instead, we encourage our parents to relinquish that expectation and realize that speaking is not the only way to communicate with others. It’s simply a different type of communication.  

Their nonspeaking child may speak one day, but in the meantime, it’s crucial to teach them the many different ways available to communicate. 

Accommodate and adapt to your child’s method of communication. This is our focus at Heartlinks ABA and what we encourage all of our parents to do.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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