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Autism: How Do You Communicate With a Non-Verbal Child?

By Sylvie Leochko

I am a teacher and recently, I assisted to one of these workshops meant to improve the quality of your teaching methods. I also am the mother of two young autistic children. My oldest is a 5 years old boy, which is considered to be non-verbal as he may not have used more than six words in his life. “Mama” was said for the first time about a year ago when he was 41/2 years old. I can’t describe to you how precious this magic moment was. I still enjoy it every time he pronounces it.

Sometimes, teachers need to be taught a few things!

During this workshop, we were studying the multiple ways that a person learns new information. Some are visual and learn using diagrams, drawings, pictures, etc. Others are using manipulative to understand new concepts. There are eight types of learning styles. One of them is called: “verbal”. This type of processing is done orally and using written material such as books, essays, etc. One of the statements that was made was that: “The more people express themselves orally, the more easily they will be able to express themselves and show their knowledge through their writing skills.”

It burned me inside. That is when I shared both my feelings and my experience concerning my son with my colleagues. It opened a new door for me when I realized that the question that popped up in people’s mind really was: “Autism: How do you communicate with a non-verbal child?”

That is when I decided to share some information related to my experience as a parent of a non-verbal child who is affected by the Autism Spectrum disorder.

A bit of personal history of my non-verbal son

My son is considered non-verbal since his vocabulary contains approximately six words which are mainly used when frustration sets in, especially when his message is not understood by the person he is communication with, at the time. Physically, he is able to speak as he is able to pronounce words but for an unknown reason, he is not communicating with others this way.

Doctors have explained that he has 50% chances of becoming verbal one day as in several cases; non-verbal children affected by Autism will start speaking between the ages of 5 to 8 years old. Some children even began speaking as late as 13 years old.

When he does speak without being influenced by frustration, his words are said in such a faint tone of voice that they are often difficult to understand or heard, if at all. As a parent, you sometimes think that you have heard him speak but being unsure you tend to believe that you heard things that you want to hear without reflecting reality. Sometimes, it may be the case but you will never know it for sure.

Communication with a non-verbal child

So, how do we communicate with our son? Well, we are using a variety of techniques. For example, in certain cases we use concrete objects that we either show him or the other way around. If he wants a sandwich, he will bring the container of jam to us. If he wants the remote control, he will take us to the shelf, take our hand and point it towards it. If you ask him to choose between several options, we will observe his reaction towards each one of them. If he gets excited, his body language will display his affirmative response by jumping up and down, some hand flapping accompanied by a huge smile. When the answer is negative, he will become upset, push away the item, turn away from it and sometimes he will even cry.

What are other ways that we use for communication purposes? Well, we use a bit of sign language, the PECS, objects and observe a lot of his reactions and the clues that he gives us such as: his body language, his tone of voice, his sounds, the expression on his face as well as the gestures that he makes us do such as putting our hands on his head with pressure to communicate that he has a headache. Another thing that we keep an eye on is his routine and the slightest changes that may be responsible for his sudden distress.

Lack of information can lead to harsh and judgmental comments

Today, I went to the hair salon. The hairdresser told me that earlier, she cut the hair of an autistic child. She said that she thought he was “normal” until she was told that he was affected by ASD. Then, she said that as all children with ASD, he was “a bit behind mentally”. I was so disgusted, hurt and angry that I even considered leaving but being in the process of a haircut, I did not want to leave with half of it completed.

I explained to her that it was a misconception that all people with ASD were affected by mental developmental delay. I also explained that during my workshop, I was told that someone who is non-verbal cannot communicate which meant, according to them that they were automatically affected by intellectual difficulties. I explained that not being verbal does not mean that someone cannot communicate efficiently their thoughts and knowledge.

Knowledge is present in a non-verbal child

As a parent, I often feel hurt and frustrated about the misconceptions that people have about Autism. At school, my son has been evaluated differently but he still surprises the school staff that work with him by his knowledge. Since he is using the computer efficiently, maybe he can use it later in life to communicate with us if he remains non-verbal.

Autism is often misunderstood

Often, people do not understand the frustration level of a non-verbal person. Well, imagine that you visit a country where you are unable to communicate with people in their own language. Wouldn’t you feel frustrated after a while? Now, imagine how it would feel to live like this every day!

If people ask you in the future: “How do you communicate with a non-verbal child?” You will be able not only to answer their question but also to enlighten them by sharing some insightful information as Autism is often unknown, even by the Educational system.

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