Most parents/carers get frustrated when their child cannot speak. I used to say “give a child a voice because there’s power in the spoken word”. Having worked with non-verbal and pre-verbal children, I can say now that , that statement is wrong because over the years, I’ve seen individuals communicate using other methods besides speech.

For young autistic children who are non-verbal, the first step is to check if they can hear and to ensure that’s ok. When the hearing is not a problem, then other communication methods like: LÁMH Sign Language (the Irish Augmented Sign Language, different from the Irish Sign Language), natural gestures (for example , nodding your head to signify yes), or the use of PECS (which incoporates pictures or symbols to provide a means of communication for the child) can be used.

PECS is Picture Exchange Communication System, where children are taught to communicate a need or feeling by exchanging a picture or symbol, thus helping to enhance the child’s communication abilities and understanding of the function of communication. The system was designed for young non-verbal pre-verbal children and follows eight defined stages. The method also encourages the child to initiate spontaneous communication.

(an example of a PECS sentence strip)

For a pre-verbal child with delayed speech, certain steps may help to encourage the child to speak.

Attention: Before you begin to talk, ensure you have your child’s full attention. It can be hard for some autistic children to listen attentively when they are distracted by something or someone else, so make sure he/she is listening to you.

Talk slowly: Most times as parents we talk at 100 miles per hour without realising that some of our words can be “lost in transit”. When talking to a preverbal child, slow your speech down in such a way that every word is heard by the child. Instructions should be concise and straight to the point, that is, do not give 2 or more instructions at a time: for example; ” Go upstairs, get your shoes, put on your shoes, wash your face and come back down”- this example contains 5 instructions, this may be too much information to process for some children, hence the instructions can be broken down one at a time.

Give the child time to understand and respond: Have you ever been in a situation where someone speaks to you and you’re trying so hard to put all the words together in your head and hence you can’t respond for a while? That’s what it feels like for some autistic children. Words are spoken too fast and understanding sometimes can be delayed and some information may be lost or not understood, this may result in slow or no response from the child. After speaking to the child, wait! Wait for a response or a sign that you’ve been heard, let the child take his/her time to respond, but avoid answering on the child’s behalf. Often parents/carers respond on behalf of the pre-verbal child without realising it. For example, you ask the child “do you want water?” Before the child even has the time to think and respond, you respond straight away and give the child water. Ask yourself, did the child say yes to your question or give a sign that he/she needs water? You need to give the child the opportunity to respond and use words at all times, so wait and give the child time to understand what is being said.

Keep it simple: use very simple language that the child can relate to. Language develops and improves over time. Start with basic language and increase the context as the child’s understanding and speech improves. For example, “It’s a cup” “This is a cup” “This is a yellow cup” “This is a lovely yellow cup”; all of these sentences describes ‘a cup’ but each one has different levels of difficulty as more words are added to further describe the cup.

Provide opportunities: Every day provide opportunities to encourage the child to use words. Point to things around the house or environment or parts of the body and name them, encourage your child to repeat after you. Play games that will encourage speech, the child may not say it right at first, don’t get discouraged because over time with lots of practice, it will get better.

All of these are strategies that may help you and your child but I always recommend that a Speech and Language Therapist be consulted for any pre-verbal or non-verbal child in order to get professional help.