Nonverbal autism in children: A guide for parents

Nonverbal autism in children: A guide for parents

We've also included some management tips which can help to improve your nonverbal child's life.

Autism is a condition with a variety of symptoms. This is why it’s known as the autism spectrum, as there are various intensities of the condition (from mild to severe). One little-known and under-researched type of autism on this spectrum is nonverbal autism. When is a child considered nonverbal autistic?  What are the signs and how can you help your child?

We’re here to help with these, and other concerns you might be having.

Quick Recap: What is Autism?

Autism is a disorder that leads to a variety of social, communication, and behavioural problems. These issues can differ in severity between different individuals.

In the past, medical professionals used to differentiate different autistic conditions via specific, different names. However, now they are all labelled under one umbrella term: autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

In fact, it’s only recently that we found out there isn’t one “type” of autism. Rather, there are small variations between autisms. So different people with autism can have their own unique advantages and issues.

Autism is usually caused by both genetic and environmental factors. The disease may also bring along other health problems like:

  • issues with the gut
  • Seizures
  • inability or interrupted sleep
  • problems with their senses, such as avoiding specific sensations – sharp like smells or vision.

Here are some more facts about autism you should know, parents!

  • Early diagnosis of ASD is critical in providing early care and management, which can help patients a lot.
  • Roughly one in 59 kids have autism.
  • Signs of autism normally become visible when the child reaches two- or three-years-old. Still, diagnosis can be done earlier, once the child reaches 18 months old. Certain developmental delays may even become obvious while the the child is still very young.

What is nonverbal autism? When is a child considered nonverbal?

Another part of autism that’s not commonly known or well understood is that it can limit a child’s speaking ability, causing nonverbal autism. It’s estimated that about one-third of children affected by autism are nonverbal.

Some people might commonly mistake regular language delays in childhood for nonverbal autism. This is a misconception. Sometimes, children may be too young to have learnt mature language skills. So while they aren’t able to talk, it is just a phase in child development. These children will eventually begin to communicate by speech – just a bit later.

In contrast, children with nonverbal autism have really limited, or garbled, capacities to say things or communicate ideas. They might use only a few words, or say “car” to mean “I want to go somewhere”, but they won’t be able to communicate where they want to go or anything beyond that.

Some children with nonverbal autism might grow up without being able to talk more than a few words, if any. And certain children can talk – but not enough to form sentences that can be used in daily conversations.

Sometimes, children with nonverbal autism may have to rely on a different approach to communicate, such as by using sign language or using text by writing or typing.

when is a child considered nonverbal

When is a child considered nonverbal? Nonverbal children can still communicate via writing and drawing. | Source: Stock photo

We hope that clears up the question “When is a child considered nonverbal?”, parents!

Will my child with nonverbal autism ever speak?

Parents, you now have a clearer answer to the question “when is a child considered nonverbal?”.

However, in your research on this type of autism, you might come across a shocking discover: children with nonverbal autism can’t speak at all, if they can’t speak by five.  

However, don’t be worried. This isn’t true. A previous study has shown that children with nonverbal autism do learn to speak in primary school or during pre-puberty. 

The study, conducted by researchers of America’s Center of Autism and Related Disorders in America, reviewed the cases of 535 kids between eight and 17 years old. These kids were determined to have serious linguistic issues when they were just four. Such issues range from no verbal communication to only saying single words or phrases, excluding  verbs.

Researchers found that majority of these kids with nonverbal autism improved their linguistic handicap. 47% of them ended up fluent in talking, and 70% could say simple phrases.

Signs that indicate your child might speak

In the same study, researchers also discovered children with nonverbal autism with larger IQs (when tested via nonverbal means) and less social impairment were likelier to develop language skills later on in life.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) in America’s guide on Nonverbal School-Aged Children with Autism also supports this. According to the guide:

“The presence of even one word, or some speech repeated by others, appears to be a significant predictor for the acquisition of spoken language after five years of age.”

Nonverbal autism in children: A guide for parents

Geraldine Dawson, the Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks, says that their study’s results can give parents hope “that their language-delayed child will go on to develop speech” later in life.

It’s only a red flag when children with nonverbal autism don’t show signs of improved speech development over the years. If so, do teach your kids to communicate effectively via non-verbal methods.

Management tips

Communicating with people is the foundation of all relationships. It’s just that most people communicate verbally – by talking. Thus, it can be a challenge for children with nonverbal autism to communicate with peers and caregivers. 

However, there are other ways you can interact and play with your child with nonverbal autism. In fact, these gestures might potentially support the development of speech or intellectual abilities.

Try using physical action to communicate by…

  • prompting your child with nonverbal autism to grasp for an object. You can also bring them close by the object. For instance, parents can put food encased in a transparent container in front of their nonverbal child. The way they respond will show a lot about what they want. Tapping the container or moving your hand towards it could mean that they want to eat the food. Then, strengthen this method of communication by offering them the food.
  • helping your child with nonverbal autism to touch objects rather than pointing to it (where possible). Doing so will make the object feel more solid.
  • You can also point towards an object as they track it with their eyes. Saying a verbal statement coupled with an exaggerated tone will also make it easier for your child with nonverbal autism to understand what you are trying to communicate.
  • It’s usually better to present kids with nonverbal autism with more visual stimuli. Visual communication is much more valuable and encouraging for kids with nonverbal autism.
  • You can also tweak this approach by using communication apps or picture books which have images that depict an object.  You can cultivate a good habit where children with nonverbal autism can communicate their needs by tapping or pointing towards these images.

Play with them

General Tips

  • Let your child with nonverbal autism play with things by involving touch. A good place to start is by giving them play dough of multiple colours. Let them mould the dough as you introduce the what each colour is called.
  • While playing, don’t stray afar from your child with nonverbal autism – keep within a metre so that they can remain focused.
  • Promote imitation as play. This form of play is socially simpler to understand for children with nonverbal autism.

Use toys

  • Older kids with nonverbal autism who have relatively less functioning can also be provided with toys that are appropriate for babies and toddlers. Rattles or maracas, for example, can be used to communicate how cause-and-effect works (by showing that sound comes from wobbling it). 
  • Use a ball to play effectively with your child’s peers, while promoting the children to throw and use the ball among one another. 
  • Provide drawings and puzzles to prompt your child with nonverbal autism in using his fine motor skills. You can also give them construction sets for your nonverbal child to assemble and train his grasping abilities. 
  • Try to occupy your the time of your child with nonverbal autism with a large variety of play toys and ideas so that they won’t stimulate themselves or obsess over a single object. “Large variety” refers to toys ranging from Legos, dolls, drawing tools, toys for music, slides, puppets silly putty, and much more. 
  • Toys that display cause-and-effect are especially helpful as children with nonverbal autism can follow how the toy works. This sort of understanding makes playing more successful as children with nonverbal autism will eventually want to cause the effect. 
  • Non cause-and-effect toys like mini-cars, shouldn’t be left out, too. These toys can help nonverbal kids with nonverbal autism learn how to manipulate objects.
when is a child considered nonverbal

“When is a child considered nonverbal?” If you already know that your child has nonverbal autism, give him wooden toy cars. It’ll help to teach him to manipulate objects. | Image source: Stock Photo

Sort and match!

 Sorting and matching fits together a cluster of skills: visual, motor and even cognitive skills. Cognitive skills because sorting and matching helps the brain to process where to put objects. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t overcomplicate these games. Design them to be so simple such that there’s no way your child with nonverbal autism can make mistakes. A good place to start is cutting out triangular hole in a container. This way, your child can’t fit in a square toy. These sort of sort-and-match games assist kids in distinguishing an object from something else. 
  • Give them different objects to sort and organise, like balls and spoons. This way, it makes similarities and differences between objects much clearer to your little one. 
  • Sort-and-match doesn’t have to be limited to physical objects. You can even include in abstract things like pictures, colours, letters, and numbers.   
  • Provide activities to match real objects with pictures of them. Such games help children with nonverbal autism to understand the fact they can communicate their wants by pointing towards or touching a picture.

Sorting and matching fully uses the vision of nonverbal autism. The game also allows them to slowly learn increasingly complex concepts, like academic subjects.



Over time we’ve developed a variety of methods to boost the verbal ability of children with nonverbal autism. However, not all forms of therapy may be completely effective for every child. Parents can try out therapies including speech therapybehavioural interventions, and music therapy to boost their linguistic abilities. 

References: Verywellhealth (Source 1, 2) , Springer,, WebMD,


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