Not Knowing Where to Start if Your Child Has a Lot of Communication Needs

Good evening, everyone. Speech-language pathologist momma. I’ve not been home long from work and this title image just keeps flashing in my brain like a neon sign; reason being, is this year I have a higher than normal population of non-verbal kids on my caseload.

As a therapist, my overall goal is for these students to be able to communicate. Of course, verbally, is optimal, but in the time being, I want to be able to teach them to communicate using gestures, sign language, PECS, whatever have you.

Their only need is NOT just communication, however.

In order to benefit from therapy and all the spontaneous learning that happens in the real world, they need to have a and/or be able to:

#1. Stable and growing receptive vocabulary = do they KNOW (just talking about KNOWING, NOT the ability to actually say the words) the names of objects, actions, people, etc. 


You can’t ask a child to use a sign or pictures to communicate their wants/needs unless they know WHAT it is they are wanting. They KNOW what it looks like, but not every want/need is going to be within their sight at all times. What if they’re sick, but do not have a fever yet? Teaching Your Child to Communicate When They Are Sick or Hurt if They Are Communication Impaired

#2. Able to follow simple directions/attention span. Can they “sit” when asked to “sit”? Touch paper when asked to “touch paper?” Get the car when asked to “Get the car?” “Stop” when asked to stop before running away in public (I know – this is a tough one to teach!!) I am NOT, however, expecting your child to sit for minutes at a time or constantly be looking at you while you are talking in order to classified as “being able to pay attention.” Oftentimes, when we don’t think they are hearing us, they are.


You must be able to follow simple directions in order to learn new skills. Even if that early skill is just being able to point, nod their head yes, or “stop” when asked to stop.

And speaking of attention span … your child needs to be able to, even in a moment of “I want it, need it, NOW NOW NOW NOW!” get the right picture that represents their wants/needs in order to get their wants/needs met as soon as they hand you that picture. If they hand you the wrong picture, and you give them what the picture represents, they will not get what they actually wanted, which will lead to frustration and your child being LESS motivated to use the PECS. Side note: It is important that you do give them the object or action that is represented in the picture, even though you KNOW it is not what they actually wanted. And we want them to use the PECS because it is a more advanced form of communication. I’m not saying any of this lightly because when a person wants something and they want it bad, the last thing they want to do is look at a bunch of pictures and pick one! However, we have to keep the overall goal in mind.

There is, of course, a lot more that goes into effective communication, but, these are the skills your child needs to have in place in order to BEGIN LEARNING how to communicate.


Speaking from a therapist’s and mother’s point of view, I have to talk myself down quite a bit while working with children that have a lot of communication needs. I want to just jump right into the part where we work on using that more advanced form of communication the right way. But it’s not going to work. I’ve tried it before.  But when I have a child that is running around the therapy room at full speed and I can’t get them to even pick up their favorite Woody doll and this is an every therapy session occurrence, this child is not ready to begin learning how to use simple signs or pictures to communicate. The first goal is to get them to following directions and improve their attention span; they go hand in hand.

A lot of our children are at the very beginning stages of language development. When actively working on our child’s communication development (as in I claim your’s as mine also!), we have to start at their DEVELOPMENTAL AGE, not their birth age.

Starting at Their Developmental Level

When your child participates in an evaluation, the psychologist, speech-language pathologist, whoever participates in the evaluation process, will be able to provide a general developmental age based from your child’s performance on the evaluation. If you are not yet familiar with this, basically, your child may be 4 years old, but their developmental age may be 2 years, 6 months. So when choosing what skills to start working on first, you should start at the 2 years, 6 months section of developmental charts and go from there. Oftentimes, a child’s receptive language developmental age will be higher than their expressive language developmental age. Receptive language is what they KNOW and UNDERSTAND. Expressive language is how they communicate, whether that be through actual words, variations in cries (remember when your child was an infant and they had a hungry cry, sleepy cry, want to picked up cry?), pointing, etc.

Our first reaction is to look at the list of what a typically developing four year old can do and say, “I’m going to pick three things from this list and this is what we’re going to work on. Aaaaaand go!” Nope. Deep breaths, ya’ll, deep breaths!

So This Is Where It Gets Hard.

As therapists and definitely as parents, we want your child to be communicating. Verbally communicating is the most optimal, but until that point is reached, we want them to at least begin using pictures, simple sign language, something, ANYTHING, to allow them to start communicating with us. Yes, this is important. And it will be so so exciting when they are able to!

However, they must first BE ABLE TO.

So in summary and in no particular order because these skills can be taught simultaneously…

Something to Think About …

Many times, when a child is non-verbal, they also have several other language factors that are impeding their communication. Not only are they already frustrated by the fact that they can’t always communicate their thoughts, wants, and needs, but they may also have attention deficits, a sensory processing disorder, or comprehension needs, all of which are barriers to learning. Even if you take a typically developing adult and ask them to start trying to learn how to do several NEW things at once, they are going to become overwhelmed and eventually, shut down.

So for your sake, as well as your child’s, be prepared to have to practice a lot of patience. Your child is going to buck on you (sorry if I’m KY slang is hard to follow!) because you are asking them to do something that is new and does not feel natural to them. It may be weeks or months before you see that first sign of progress. DO NOT DOUBT YOURSELF OR YOUR ABILITY TO TAKE THIS TASK ON. YOU CAN DO THIS. DO NOT DOUBT YOUR CHILD’S ABILITY. IF WE DON’T SET LIMITS IN REGARDS TO WHAT WE THINK OUR CHILDREN CAN ACHIEVE, THERE ARE NO LIMITS.

I hope everyone finds something in here that is helpful. If you do not see something that relates to your child, please leave a comment below or email me at and I will do my best to create a post, no names mentioned of course, that will hopefully help your child.

Disclaimer Statement

This article was written by a speech-language pathologist, but is not meant to replace a speech-language evaluation or speech-language therapy. If your child is already receiving speech-language therapy at this time, please continue to work on improving your child’s communication at home. Therapy is so much more effective when we all work together with the same goal in mind!

Posts That You May Find Helpful …

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 Teach Your Nonverbal Child to Communicate Without Using Words

How to Help Your Child Talk More

How To Help Your Child With Sensory Issues Cope With Holidays and Social Gatherings

How to Help Your Special Needs Child Mainstream into the Regular Classroom


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