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Roughly a quarter of autistic children are non-verbal or minimally-verbal. Many still learn to speak later on, but for those who don't, there are other options in the form of augmentative and alternative communication.

Parents whose children have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and who aren't yet talking, or use no more than a few words, may wonder how they can encourage their children to speak. Young autistic children who aren't yet speaking may well acquire verbal language later on, especially with the right intervention. Not all autistic people will ever be verbal, however, but that doesn't mean they cannot communicate in other ways. 

How many autistic people are non-verbal?

Research consistently indicates that somewhere between 25 and 35 of autistic children are either non-verbal or minimally verbal.

"Non-verbal" seems easy to define — the child doesn't use words to communicate. The term may not always be used in that way, however, with some researchers and clinicians using it to describe people who use few spoken words as well as those who don't use any.

"Minimally-verbal" is trickier, as different studies have used different definitions. One study found, however, that just over 26 percent of their sample size of children on the spectrum used fewer than five words., while a little more than 36 percent didn't string two words together to make phrases. A higher percentage, just over 43 percent, weren't using "phrases with nouns and verbs" (or, in other words, complete sentences). In this case, these percentages were seen after children received community-based early intervention — around half of those who participated in the study didn't significantly improve their verbal abilities.

Young children on the spectrum: Non-verbal or minimally-verbal now doesn't mean they won't acquire speech later

Delayed language skills are among the early warning signs of autism, and it's natural for parents of autistic children at an age where most of their peers are already speaking to be quite worried. Not only might you wonder what being non-verbal or minimally-verbal could mean for your child's future, it might also be heartbreaking, on a personal level, that you're not able to communicate with your child verbally. Language represents such a crucial aspect of human connection, after all. 

Research indicates, however, that autistic children who don't use words before the age of four may do so later: 

  • The majority, 70 percent, acquired phrases. 
  • Forty-seven percent of children who were non-verbal before age four came to be fluent users of speech at or after age four. 

A language delay, even a big one, doesn't mean that your child will never speak, in other words. But what determines which children will remain non- or minimally-verbal and which ones go on to use phrases or speak fluently? 

Factors that predict increased verbal ability

A study into the topic revealed that autistic children with significant language delays are more likely to later become fluent or at least use a wide variety of phrases if:

  • They have a higher non-verbal IQ, a concept that relates to logic skills that don't require speech. 
  • They have less marked difficulties with social interaction. 
  • They're older — it turns out that some children just need more time or intervention. 

What can you do to help your child speak?

We're going to be straight with you — much more research is still needed in this realm before anyone can say, with certainty, what approaches are most likely to be successful. Several studies have, however, discovered that delayed motor skills may be linked to delayed language skills, as well as that using augmentative and alternative communication (communicating by means other than speaking) doesn't decrease the odds that a child will later acquire speech. 

From this, we can conclude a few things: 

  • Teaching children sign language helps in a variety of ways — it helps them communicate now and it promotes increased motor skills which have been shown to potentially help with speech acquisition. 
  • A picture exchange communication system, in which a person can communicate in a fairly rudimentary way by handing cards to others, likewise involves the building of motor skills while enabling better communication in the present. 
  • Speech, we may forget, actually requires a lot of motor skills, such as jaw movements. Motor-based behavioral interventions can sometimes help autistic children make progress with their speech. 
  • Other behavioral interventions in which autistic children are taught to use gestures and follow those others make can also help — a finding that was arrived at after noting that typically developing children also point at things, gesture, and take note of others' non-verbal communication before they start speaking. 

The best thing parents can do is, then, to explore the latest advances in science and their merits, to discuss what is available with their children's healthcare providers, and to ask their child's healthcare team what they can do to help improve their child's communication at home. One fairly obvious thing to note here is that it's important to keep on using speech and expressive gestures when communicating with your child yourself, even if you are under the impression that your child doesn't understand what you are doing. Playing board games and using computer systems like the Ninento Wii are two more approaches you could try, as they, too, promote communication.

What if your child doesn't become verbal?

I'm just going to say, here, that some of the most eloquent, interesting autistic writers — and some of the most effective self-advocates, I might add — on the internet are people I later discovered were non-verbal. Not being able to use speech does not mean a person cannot learn to read and write, and write well for that matter. Writing is, alongside sign language, the most readily-available and low-tech augmentative and alternative communication out there. 

A variety of other methods are also around, from (fairly limited) picture cards to high-tech speech-generating devices of the kind Stephen Hawking used. Some of these methods are incredibly nifty and allow a person to communicate very effectively without ever having to rely on speech, at all or as their sole form of communication. 

Not all autistic people will speak, or speak very much, but that in no way means they cannot have a voice. 

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