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Promoting Communication in Your Non-Verbal Child

By request, I am taking a more in-depth look at ways in which parents can help promote communication from their non-verbal children. As part of my series on floor time strategies, this blog will be specifically devoted to floor time techniques to use with children who don’t speak. (Not sure what floor time is? Click here.)

For the non-verbal child, all the rules of floor time still apply: Give 20 – 30 minutes of your undivided attention, several times per day. Build on the child’s favorite behaviors. You are going to let your son or daughter select the activity through natural preferences. That includes fiddling with twigs, hand-flapping, staring into space, slamming doors, or whatever the activity may be, no matter how strange. This activity is comforting to your child, and it’s the thing that will best motivate her. However, you should have lots of toys or activities handy so that your child may have the option to choose different things. If she drops her book and picks up a doll, you’re going to follow that lead.

Floor Time Techniques for Non-Verbal Children

You will start with parallel participation, that is, doing what your child is doing as you sit facing him. After this is well tolerated, you will use the following options to promote interaction:

  1. Make meaningless behaviors purposeful, by creating a “game” from your child’s actions. If she is twiddling fingers, play peek-a-boo using your own fingers. Then try to encourage her to play. If your son is banging the wall, get out a pot and spoon and try to imitate or echo his sound. Make a rhythm. Capture his interest, and see if he’ll switch to the pot and spoon. You are trying to turn existing solitary behavior into interactions. Interactions are the beginnings of communication.
  2. Use playful obstruction to disrupt the natural flow of play. If your daughter is making rows of blocks, put a toy car in the path. Say, “Uh-oh! That car needs to move! Beep Beep!” If your son is spinning a top, throw a scarf over it. “Hey! Where’d the top go? Oh no!”
  3. Play “dumb.” If your daughter kicks the door to go out, pretend not to understand. If your son reaches for a favorite toy, act confused. This will encourage grunts, pointing, or other elementary forms of communication, which can be built upon.

While using these floor play techniques, do the following:

  • Recognize your child’s signs of non-verbal communication. Since the vast majority of human communication is non-verbal and expressed through body language and facial expressions, do not overlook these actions in your child. If your child pushes your hand away, he is saying, “Stop it,” without words. If she smirks mildly, she is saying, “I think I like that.” If he throws papers on the floor and grunts, he is saying, “I’m frustrated.” By giggling, she means, “That’s funny!” Attaching words to these complex feelings is extremely difficult, or even impossible for some children. So during floor time you should consider any pointed interaction toward you from your child as an attempt to communicate.
  • Use animated facial expressions. Sit facing your child as your interact, and if your child refuses to face you, sit in front of a large mirror so that she can see your face. Put simple words with your facial expressions. “Hurray!” “Where?” “Uh-oh.” Remember you are not trying to be a clown or entertain your child. Don’t do all the work. Your expressions should be in response to your son or daughter’s own facial expressions. Exaggerate your expressions somewhat, but they should match what is going on.

  • Encourage eye contact by providing sensory input that is pleasing to your child when eye contact occurs. If your son likes to be tickled, start the tickling during eye contact and stop when he shifts his gaze. If your daughter likes a feather brushed against her cheek, do it when she makes eye contact.
  • Build a gestural vocabulary. Once a child can use 30 communicative gestures, he is ready to move toward speech. But even a child who has some speech already will benefit tremendously from using gestures as a fundamental foundation of communication. For the non-verbal child, using gestures is a bridge leading toward what we hope will be the eventual use of words. In my opinion, unless your child is hearing impaired and needs to learn sign language as a lifelong means of communication, you do not need to learn specific signs to teach to your child. You can simply use natural gestures, like pointing, putting fingers by your mouth to indicate food, palms together against cheek to indicate “sleep,” etc. You can build upon any gestures your child is naturally using. Try to keep gestures consistent, but you can build your own gestural vocabulary at home. (Besides, you’ve got enough on your plate without having to learn a new language.)
  • While using gestures and expressions to communicate, talk to your child. Just because your child is silent doesn’t mean you should be. You need to model appropriate language, without getting too complicated. Speak with animation, but use simple two and three word phrases. “Let’s play!” “Go outside?” “Here’s the ball.” “Good job!” “Ben’s angry?” “Time to eat!” “Your turn!” etc.
  • Be sure you’re well aware of your child’s sensitivity profile and use this knowledge to your advantage. If your child is oversensitive to touch, for example, you’ll want to avoid handling him too much. If he’s undersensitive to sound and craves auditory input, you’ll want to use music, rhythm, and instruments in play.
  • Reward effective gestures or speech immediately. If you child does use a gesture, utters a word, or otherwise has a breakthrough, reward him or her by demonstrating your understanding and immediately giving him what he wants.

Remember that this will take patience and a lot of determination on your part. You will see progress, but it may be very slow. Give yourself time off and reward yourself. You are engaged in a good cause, a truly important and noble one. Don’t give up if you don’t see immediate results.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.

Floor Time is an intervention model developed by by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. and can be found in his wonderful book, The Child with Special Needs, by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and Serena Wieder, Ph.D.