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Best Ways To Support Nonspeaking Autistic Children

The inspiration for this conversation was from recent intake calls at my speech clinic. In a short span, I encountered two families with remarkably similar stories.

One particular call was from a father concerned about his four-year-old, nonspeaking, autistic child who needed additional speech therapy. Despite the child being on an IEP and receiving school support, the father was unaware of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication). 

This lack of knowledge was heartbreaking. How can a child with established supports still miss out on such a crucial communication tool?

So today I want to talk about my top strategies to support nonspeakers. 

But before diving in, it's essential to clarify terminology. As an neuroaffirming SLP, I have made the shift from using the term “nonverbal” to using “nonspeaking” instead.  

And this shift comes from listening to the autistic population we are serving. Several nonspeakers have said that the term nonverbal tends to imply that they lack the ability to communicate or understand language, which is far from accurate. Nonspeaking individuals may not use spoken language but can still communicate effectively through other means. 

The language we use matters. Language shapes our perceptions and approaches. When a community expresses a preference for certain terminology, it's vital to respect and adopt it. 

Using "nonspeaking" instead of "nonverbal" acknowledges that these individuals can communicate, just not through traditional speech. This shift in language can drive more accurate and supportive interventions.

Now without further ado, here are my key strategies to support nonspeaking autistic children

1. Early Introduction of AAC

AAC encompasses various tools and methods that support communication, such as apps, communication core boards, gestures, and devices. Introducing AAC early is crucial—it doesn't hinder speech development but rather fosters it. In our clinic, we start using AAC from a very young age, and it's never too late to begin. AAC devices open up new avenues for communication, allowing children to express themselves more fully.

2. Presume Competence

Always presume that non-speaking individuals are capable of learning and understanding language. Avoid making assumptions about their abilities. By presuming competence, we offer opportunities for growth and learning. For example, we have seen tremendous progress in children as young as two who, with the right support and engagement, start developing language skills previously thought unattainable.

3. Support Regulation

A regulated sensory environment is critical for language development. Many autistic children have sensory differences that can lead to dysregulation, impeding their ability to access language. Creating environments that accommodate these sensory needs helps children remain calm and engaged, promoting better learning outcomes. And if you want to learn exactly how you can do this, make sure you check out my brand new free sensory training for SLPs. 

When you begin to implement these practices, you will see meaningful progress.

If you want a deeper dive into this topic, make sure you check out our recent live show, Making the Shift. 

>> Making the Shift, Episode 68, Best Ways to Support Nonspeaking Autistic Children