Communicating with your Child with Nonverbal Autism

CommunicateApril has been designated national Autism Awareness Month and provides the perfect opportunity for individuals and organizations across the nation to educate their communities about autism.   Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.


The full range of ASDs includes three primary kinds:

  • Autistic Disorder (also called “classic” autism): This is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism.” People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.
  • Asperger Syndrome: People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS; also called “atypical autism”): People who meet some—but not all—of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS. They will usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorders, with symptoms possibly including social and communication challenges.

What is nonverbal autism?

About 25% of people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder could be considered to have nonverbal autism — yet the term “nonverbal autism” is not a part of the diagnostic criteria. In part, that’s because there is no clear line between verbal and non-verbal individuals with autism. Some people have the ability to speak, but lack the ability to use language in a meaningful way. Others can’t use spoken language, but are able to communicate with written or typed language, American sign language, picture cards, or digital communication devices.

Parents of children who don’t yet have the ability to use spoken language  shouldn’t worry that they will never be able to communicate.  Spoken language is only one way for human beings to communicate, and it’s by no means the most basic — nor the most significant — when it comes to measuring intelligence or anticipating long-term outcomes, according to Dr. James Coplan, a developmental pediatrician and author.  In fact, as he explains, many children with autism may be extremely delayed in use of spoken language, for many reasons (physical problems among them).  But, if your child takes your hand to guide you, he is communicating.  If he uses gestures, he is communicating.  If he can master picture cards, signs, or other methods of connecting with another human being, he is communicating.

Other ways to communicate

Besides spoken language, some parents of children with nonverbal autism have experienced some success communicating by these other methods:

American Sign Language (ASL) Developed as a means for hearing impaired and deaf people to communicate, American Sign Language is a system of hand gestures used to communicate.  Fluent ASL is not “signed English” but a language with different syntax. In the last few years parents have been teaching infants ASL for the same reason it is a successful strategy for children on the Autism Spectrum: it permits them to communicate wants and desires efficiently while they are still mastering the difficult and many stepped process of imitating and producing spoken language. When paired with spoken language by the parents, teachers or therapists, ASL can be used to scaffold verbal language.

Picture Exchange Systems (PECS) This is a trademarked system using simple pictures, often paired with words, to help children with significant communication deficits to communicate. Severely physically disabled children, such as children with Cerebral Palsy, often find PECS a successful way to communicate throughout life. They can communicate their wishes by touching or indicating a PECS picture with a mouth held stylus or a head mounted laser pointer. PECS, when paired with speech, can be used to help children with autism communicate, and like ASL, often can be withdrawn as a support as the child creates spoken language.

Importance of Wearing a Medical ID

Parents of children with autism should ensure that their child is wearing a medical ID bracelet at all times.  Autism can be a tricky condition for emergency medical professionals, primarily because the autism spectrum means that no two people with autism have exactly the same needs and concerns.  Some with autism take medications, others have sensory concerns, others may be nonverbal, and others may be very high functioning.  An autism medical ID can help inform medical and response personnel of the specific needs associated to the wearer and make sure that medications administered do not interfere or react to what may already have been taken.

Sources:, – Autism and Communication Skills, National Center for Learning Disabilities, Autism Speaks, American Autism Association, Coplan, James. Counseling Parents Regarding Prognosis in Autistic Spectrum Disorder.PEDIATRICS Vol. 105 No. 5 May 2000, p. e65 ELECTRONIC ARTICLE


About Shannon Thiery

As American Medical ID's Marketing Specialist, Shannon manages company social media channels and print marketing. Shannon is a Texas Native and attended the University of Texas at San Antonio where she majored in Marketing. She enjoys traveling the world, going to the lake with her family and spending time with her adorable Shih Tzu, Teddy!

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