How to Teach Your Nonverbal Child to Communicate Without Using Words

Before you begin, these alternate communication methods are NOT meant to replace your child talking in the future. It IS meant to open more communication doors and opportunities up for you and your child. They also expand your child’s vocabulary, which is necessary for effective communication. Bounce over here if you want to see how and why.

According to research, alternative communication, such as sign language and the use of Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), does NOT delay talking. I found the following statement from https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/using-sign-language/

  • According to a research review by Millar and Light, the current research provides evidence that using alternative communication means (such as sign language) does not prevent children with developmental disabilities from talking and may actually support their ability to speak.
  • Millar and Light also found that using alternative communication (such as sign language) can help older children learn to communicate as well as younger children.
  • A Study by Capirici, Cattani, et. al. found that learning sign language could actually improve cognition (intelligence) in typically-developing, hearing children.

Parents typically want their hearing children to learn how to communicate using words. Sometimes, however, our children don’t begin speaking when expected. If you’re not sure what your child’s language should look like for their age, click here and scroll down to see the language development milestones. Parents yearn for those first words, such as “ma-ma” and “da-da,” because it is another way we bond with our children. Talking is not the only form of communication, however. Communication is any form of interaction that takes place between two people that are relaying messages to each other. This can be through gestures, sign language, exchanging meaningful pictures, also known as PECS (I’m about to touch on this), or talking. Your child is probably already pointing to things they want and/or using noises and facial expressions to convey their wants and needs and likes/dislikes; this is a form of communication. SO WHY BOTHER USING DIFFERENT COMMUNICATION METHODS? A few reasons. First, pointing and expressions are not always effective, especially as your child grows older and has more thoughts and wants/needs. Second, your child needs more control over their environment. I don’t mean allowing your child to be the boss of your house, but as humans we are wired to want and have some level of independence. That control and effectively communicating go hand in hand. Third, it is difficult to have back and forth communication with your child with pointing and facial expressions alone. That brings me to the point of today’s topic: providing your child with ways to more effectively communicate with others, without having to actually speak words.

Two Communication/Alternative Communication Methods I Am Focusing on Today Are:

  • Simple sign language
     
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) – Don’t let this fancy title fool you! It’s just about pictures and very simple to do.

Pick one method or do both! Whatever works best for your child!

How To Use Simple Sign Language to Improve Your Child’s Communication 

#1) Most importantly, you must be consistent and patient with the process. Your child needs consistency in order for a new communication method to be effective for them. As far as your patience goes, they may not like this new communication method because they’re used to communicating a different way and being somewhat successful with it. Deep breaths, Momma and Poppa Bear, deep breaths!

season 1 wtf GIF by The White Princess

#2) Make a list of words that you want your child to communicate. I suggest starting with a list of 10 words that help get your child’s most common wants and needs met. Examples are “yes, no, eat, drink, more, dirty, sick and/or hurt, scared, tired, play, all done.” Perhaps you’ll want this list to include words/activities that often cause your child to have meltdowns because they have difficulty communicating them. Even if your child is already good at conveying these messages through pointing and/or noises or facial expressions, the point is to get them communicating on a higher level. As time goes on, you’ll naturally add more words to the list.

#3) KNOW the signs for the words on your list before you introduce them to your child. They’re like horses – they can sense fear or uncertainty! You can either make up your own or use actual sign language signs. I personally like to teach my children using actual sign language signs because I am forgetful and need to be able to review. Signs will vary across websites due to signs being different according to the region or country. When you are teaching your child a sign, make sure you are consistent with that sign.
This link is a good start for learning a few signs: https://www.parenting.com/gallery/baby-sign-language-words-to-know
This link provides a dictionary of at least 600 signs: https://www.babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/?v=7516fd43adaa

#4 Has Two Parts!!

#4) Say the word(s) while doing hand over hand when teaching the sign. For example, if you are teaching your child the sign for “all done,” use your hands to move their hands to make the sign while saying “all done.” Very important that you say the word while helping your child do the sign! This all works towards the goal of verbal communication.

#4) IMMEDIATELY reinforce the sign, especially in the beginning. For example, after you and your child make the sign for “all done” IMMEDIATELY stop the activity you all are doing. An example is immediately removing your child’s food after doing the sign for “all done.” Another example would be if your child is upset because they want to stop a certain activity. Take their hands, make the sign for “all done” with their hands, then IMMEDIATELY stop the activity. If your child does the sign for “more,” make sure you have “more” of whatever that is within immediate reach.

#5) Withhold and encourage.  If your child wants something, withhold the item or activity, and encourage them to make the sign for “more”, “play” or whatever it is they are wanting. If they do NOT know the sign well enough to do it independently, do hand over hand to help them make the sign while saying the sign aloud, and THEN give them what they want. If they DO know how to do the sign by themselves, encourage them to make the sign, once they attempt, IMMEDIATELY give them what they want. I talk a lot about “withholding” in my posts. In my opinion, it’s one of the most effective tactics for teaching children that communication gets their wants and needs be met. Wow, that somehow sounded mean!

matilda spinning GIF

If you want to give your child a stronger sense of back and forth communication style, use a few signs while you are talking to them. When they reply using signs, your child will feel like they are talking to you the same way you talk to them!

Please don’t expect perfection! If your child is attempting to communicate with you and the sign is not perfect, accept their attempt!

How To Use the Picture Exchange Communication System to Expand Your Child’s Communication Opportunities 

This is how your child will use the PECS system: If they want something, they will get the picture that represents what they want and hand it to you. For example, if they want their ball, they will get the picture of the ball and hand it to you.

#1) Most importantly, be consistent and patient with the process. Your child may not like this at first! If they’ve been communicating primarily through pointing, they’re not going to like the change. Your child needs consistency and your patience in order for a new communication method to be effective for them. When I use PECS in my therapy room, it can sometimes take weeks for a child to fully accept PECS and learn how to use it.

#2) Make a list of words that you want your child to communicate. I suggest starting with words that helps get your child’s most common wants and needs met. Whether this is basic necessities such as food, drinks, potty, or pictures of their favorite toys and activities.  Examples are “eating, drinking, playing, hurt, sick, sad, scared, angry, all done.” Even if your child is already good at conveying these messages through pointing and/or noises or facial expressions, the point is to get them to communicating on a higher level. As time goes on, you’ll naturally add more words to the list.

#3) Take pictures or find pictures on the Internet that represent the word list. When gathering these pictures, make sure they are VERY straightforward. For example, if you want a picture of blocks, make sure the picture do not include other objects in the image. When you are gathering pictures of food, I suggest you use pictures of their most common foods. For example, if they like Honey Nut Cheerios and grape juice, get pictures of Honey Nut Cheerios and grape juice. REMEMBER, start out with a small assortment and build from there. Don’t make a ton of pictures before knowing whether or not this system will work for your child. A source for PECS cards is https://autisticmama.com/pecs-picture-exchange-communication-system/ 
Scroll halfway down to the title “Where Do We Find PECS?”
***I overthink things so…the website link I provided is a wonderful resource. I am NOT assuming or suggesting, however, that your child has autism. ***
There’s also PECS apps you can download. I’m not against them, I just personally prefer the hard copy version because they are easier for little hands and/or those children that have trouble with coordination.

#4) Make the pictures accessible and durable with laminating paper, Velcro, and a hard surface. I’m cringing as I type, because it’s adding more work to already busy parents (I’m one – I know the feeling when another item is added to the to-do list), but this is what it takes. I like to laminate my PECS cards. In my therapy room, I have the actual hardware that I place the Velcroed PECS cards in. It’s basically hard plastic binders. If you want, buy some cheap clipboards, anything that is stiff really, place a Velcro strip on the hard surface, a piece of Velcro on the back of the card, and place the cards on your new “PECS Board.” When organizing your PECS Boards, I suggest you group the pictures according to category. Play items with play items, food and drinks together, etc. Stay consistent with the placement of the PECS Boards so your child will know where to find them.

#5 Has Two Parts!!

#5) Say “I want _____” while doing hand over hand when teaching your child how to use the PECS system. For example, if your child wants a ball, you take them to the PECS board, guide their hand to the ball picture, pull it off, and while you help them hand the picture to you, say, “I want the ball. I want the ball.” VERY IMPORTANT to always do this! Every family structure is different; if you want your child to verbally communicate, it’s important that you pair talking with alternate communication methods.

#5) IMMEDIATELY reinforce the sign, especially in the beginning. For example, after you and your child did the picture exchange for the ball, get the ball as fast fast fast as you can!

#6) Withhold and encourage.  If your child wants something, withhold the item or activity, and encourage them to get the _____ picture. If they still need help doing this, help them. If they CAN do it independently, walk them to the PECS Board, and encourage them to get the _____ picture again. Remember, IMMEDIATELY give them what they want after they give you the picture, especially in the beginning stages.

***Quick Tip: Whatever picture they give you, immediately give them that object or activity, EVEN if you know that is not what they actually wanted. This helps your child learn very quickly the significance of the picture cards.

That’s it for today, folks!

If you have anything you would like me to post about or any insight into what you read in this post, please leave a comment below.

Related Posts

What Does It Mean if My Child Has A Language Delay or Disorder?

Everyday Activities to do at Home to Help Your Child Start Talking

Is Your Child Having Difficulty Communicating? It May Be Due to a Limited Vocabulary Bank.

How to Expand Your Child’s Vocabulary to Improve Their Communication

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