Teaching Children with Autism to Talk, Part 2: Non-verbal Communication

Author: Lisa “Luna” DeCurtis, M.A., CCC-SLP


Speech and language deficits are often the first sign of autism.  Some people with autism never learn to speak, or speak only in rote phrases that they have hear thousands of times.  Understandably, this inability to communicate causes panic and alarm, and parents are anxious for speech therapists to teach their autistic child words.  But, speech and language begins well before words come out.  Before anyone can learn to speak, they must master non-verbal communication and inferencing.  In part 1, we used the acronym HAWK to describe the need to listen to and identify noises. In part 2, we are addressing the importance of body language in inferencing and interpreting speech.

Always, in speaking a person’s body language and facial expression contributes to what he is saying.  For example:  if you say “yes” with your arms crossed and your eyes rolled, you are probably angry, yes with a hand clap or smile and you are excited, yes while looking at the ground and you might really mean no.  Angry, happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, lying, guilty are all meanings behind one simple word “yes”.  To an autistic person, this is incredibly confusing, sometimes more so when they can say the word yes.  Teaching a child with autism the importance of looking at a person’s face and body language when they are speaking is vital to successful communication.  How to pay for speech therapy? Get health insurance for children now.

Read more about typical language development for ages 0 to 18 months,  and typical language development for ages 18 months to 3 years.

Inferencing focuses on the child’s cognitive communication skills allowing the child to interpret or infer what’s being communicated, make sense of it, and then act accordingly. Beginning with facial expressions, the child with Autism needs to understand the speaker’s intent without letting the expressive language that the speaker is using get in the way. One way to help your child learn this skill is by overemphasizing your own facial expression before the words come out so the child can associate the nonverbal communication with the behavior and then pair it with the language.

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Here are examples of using facial expressions before introducing language:

Before responding “Wow” or “I’m so surprised” when the child shows you something, show an excited or surprised face first. Then you can add a simple exclamation or give him or her more detailed language about how you’re feeling.

Before saying “no”, “don’t”, “stop” make sure you get the child’s attention without words (perhaps by clearing your throat, or clapping, or stomping) and then shake your head or wag your finger first so that he or she will tune into you face and your emotion behind it before hearing you say it

Other examples are yawning before you say you’re tired; laugh before saying “that’s funny” ; gasp when something happens, such as when something drops, before declaring what just happened or making a suggestion about what to do.

There are fun activities you can do to help the child tune into your face and your expressions, such as hiding behind a door and pop out with different facial expressions. Give the child a noisy signal that will get your child’s attention to build anticipation that you’re going to be jumping out. Use a round hollow object that frames your face that can help your child focus on the facial expressions. You can even put your own hands up to make a circle around your face to highlight where the main message is coming from.
These skills will help your child as they transfer to the classroom so the child can interpret what the teacher is communicating when she folds her arms and shakes her head to communicate she doesn’t approve. This will help when it transfers to the playground (or playdate or birthday party) so that when a peer puts her hands over her ears to signal that the screaming is too noisy, your child will know to speak softer. This will transfer to your child watching other children’s behavior in the classroom to know what to do, even if he can’t process all of the language and follow all of the directions that the teacher has given.

If you’re working on inferencing, make sure your modeling it with nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and body language first, then add language to it. This will create the building blocks of cognitive communication skills so that later, when your child is ready, you can talk about “what do you think will happen if you…. “ or “why do you think your friend acted that way when you…”.

In part 3, we will be building inferencing by integrating expressive language for the child to infer what a speaker means by moving from concrete to more abstract language and by using indirect language, such as indirect commands for the child to tune into, understand, and act upon.

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2 Responses to “Teaching Children with Autism to Talk, Part 2: Non-verbal Communication”

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  2. […] Using a retrospective approach from a database that gathers biologic and phenotypic data on children with autism (the Simon Simplex Collection (SSC)), they looked at children who had a severe language delay as […]

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