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What Is Nonverbal Autism? 

November 2, 2023

Autism affects each person differently, as the spectrum is just as diverse as the individuals themselves. Nonverbal autism is one specific designation along the spectrum that can often raise significant concerns among loved ones.

Today's blog provides an overview of when a child is considered nonverbal and common nonverbal autism signs. We'll also share additional resources for parents or caregivers interested in learning more about this topic. 

What Is Nonverbal Autism?

According to this recent study, the term "nonverbal autism" refers to a subset of children with autism— around 30%—who never learn to speak more than a handful of words. They may have great difficulty speaking or will not speak at all throughout their lives. 

What Stage is Nonverbal Autism? 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders covers three levels of autism, broadly defined by how individuals function. A child who is displaying nonverbal autism falls into the third category of autism.

ASD Level 3 individuals require "very substantial support" and typically function with "severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills" as well as "great distress/difficulty when changing actions or focus."

What are the Signs of Nonverbal Autism? 

Nonverbal autism signs are usually noticeable by a child's second birthday. These signs may include:

  • Limited eye contact
  • Lack of response to their name
  • Few gestures to communicate

Some children may produce sounds or words, but they might be repetitive or used in unusual ways.

The designation as "nonverbal" typically comes when they are around five years old and are still not speaking or have a very limited vocabulary.

Can Someone with Nonverbal Autism Ever Speak? 

"Nonverbal" does not mean non-communicative! Nonverbal children can and do communicate, but they do so using alternative methods. 

The Applied Behavioral Analysis organization provides six strategies that parents or caregivers can use when working with a nonverbal child with autism. These strategies will help the child communicate with the world around them and experience a better quality of life. 

  1. Use hand gestures and eye contact when communicating with the child. The goal is to help them develop the basic precursors to language and start to mimic your gestures when they communicate with you. 
  2. When playing with the child, use it to point out the names of items. You can also use back-and-forth role play as another strategy for communication. Encourage your child to mimic you and also let them lead the way by mimicking them. 
  3. Start by teaching simple language, such as short words and phrases, accompanied by gestures or signs, to help your child gain confidence. Follow their interests by beginning with the parts of their environment that are the most engaging to them. 
  4. Talk to a healthcare professional about visual supports and assistive devices to help your autistic child learn to communicate. There is a wealth of resources and new technology available to caregivers and parents of autistic children. 
  5. Be patient and give your child time, both in the moment and in the long-term. When he or she is trying to communicate, wait and give the child a chance to try before jumping in. Doing so will help build confidence. 

Is Nonverbal Autism Serious?

A child experiencing nonverbal autism can still lead a rich and fulfilling life. Though some might not use traditional spoken language, they can learn to communicate via augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods, including:

  • Sign language
  • Picture exchange communication system (PECS)
  • Speech-generating devices

Children often benefit immensely from structured routines and predictable environments that reduce anxiety. 

With patience, understanding, and the right tools, you can help facilitate meaningful communication between your child and the world around them. 

Here To Support You

While this information can be overwhelming as you're navigating life with a child exhibiting the signs of nonverbal autism, you're not alone. 

At Best Care, we provide support, information, and answers to your family caregiving questions. Our goal is mutual understanding and inclusion, with love and respect at its heart. You don't have to do this alone— Best Care is here for you! Contact us for questions or to learn more about pediatric home care services for children with Autism. 

A young child with nonverbal autism wearing headphones.
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