Helping your nonverbal child find their voice can be both frustrating and incredibly rewarding. Constant encouragement, therapy and attempts to break through their walls may be repeatedly met with failure, only to discover that one day something clicks. That single moment can be worth all of the time and dedication you will devote to communicating with your nonverbal child. Even if your child is above the age of four and still not communicating with you on a regular basis, it is highly likely that your child will eventually develop language skills in the future. Here are some tips aimed at helping you communicate with your nonverbal child.
Spoken words are just one way to communicate. Other options include sign language, picture exchange, gestures, pointing, and electronic devices. Some kids gravitate to one method. Others don’t seem interested, no matter what you try. If that’s the case, try everything and stick with it. Repetition is incredibly powerful. Even if your child doesn’t show that he’s paying attention or taking it in, you might be surprised to find he knows more than you think. Kids who are shy sometimes feel more comfortable babbling to a pet than a person. Encourage that. Any vocalization is progress!
Play is Therapy; Therapy is Play
When you have a child with verbal difficulties, every moment is an opportunity for learning and introducing new concepts to your child. Play therapy has long been used as a means of helping nonverbal children find their words by providing a way to integrate socially, develop emotionally and resolve any trauma that may have caused speech development to lag. Psychology Today notes that play therapy is used to help children up to age 12 explore their lives in a safe, comfortable area with a limited number of imposed guidelines or limits. This allows for free expression while parents or therapists observe their activity for cues to help children express themselves in a way that feels more comfortable. The blurring line between play and therapy helps parents expand their observation time beyond the therapist’s office while utilizing a creative mix of dancing, storytelling, arts and crafts and music.
Make Your Child Comfortable
People, in general, are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings verbally when they feel comfortable with their audience and their environment. You can help your child’s comfort level in a variety of ways:
- Get down on their level, such as sitting on the floor
- Help your child maintain eye contact by putting stickers on your forehead
- Give your child the time and space to talk by pausing and looking at them directly
- Find times when you and your child are not hungry, tired, grumpy or stressed as these feelings can translate through body language
It’s important to note that children who are nonverbal often become very good at reading body language and faces. They may tense up if they see that you are frowning, and withdraw if they feel anger or frustration from you or from others. These situations cause added stress when they don’t need it, so try to be sensitive to finding the “perfect storm” of time, space and positive energy to help your child gain verbal skills.
Take Cues From Your Child
As a parent, we often feel that it’s our job to lead our children down a particular path. While that is often the case, with nonverbal children you will find that you need to vastly expand your ability to listen to their body language. Even eye contact or looking at a particular toy or food can give you insight into their thoughts and desires, and when you observe carefully you may catch small repetitive movements that are the beginnings of a shared language. Reflecting these cues back to your child reinforces them and allows you to slowly build the infrastructure of a conversation with your child. Use single words to help describe what they are doing. For instance, if they are playing with a particular stuffed animal, name it. Be sure you always use the same name with items as consistency is critical or you risk adding to their confusion.
Leverage Technology Tools
There are hundreds of assistive technology tools that will help aid your communication with your child. These include everything from flashcards with pictures of everyday household items and favorite toys to tablet and smartphone apps that will speak the name of an image that your child taps. While these may work best for older children, even babies and toddlers are often intrigued by the sounds and moving pictures on electronic devices. You may find that your child is willing to interact longer with devices than with humans, so you may need to limit their time on electronics if you see them becoming overly attached.
Helping your nonverbal child communicate requires patience, consistency and a whole lot of loving care — and a big dash of fun! Children enjoy learning when it is made into a game and providing nurturing and supportive rewards can make the process much easier for you both.