Non-Speaking Children with ASD: They Whys and Wherefores

Parents may attend an autism conference at which they see an amazing looking computerized device with sequences of screens showing images of familiar objects and actions that can be pressed to produce voice sounds. When pressed in the correct order, the result resembles speaking sentences. Some devices are relatively simple like TANGO. Others are very complex with multilayered sequences of screens, with attractive images and hundreds of possible words. Parents wonder whether their non-speaking child with autism would be able to talk if they purchased a device like that, even though the price tag may be more than $1000-2000.

Long before deciding on an Assistive or Augmentative Communication approach for your child it is worth thinking about the reasons a child may not communicate. The communication approach depends on why your child isn’t talking. Children with autism may lack communicative skills for several reasons, some relating specifically to the way various parts of their brain develop that are necessary to speak or understand speech, or produce or understand symbols, like letters or abstract pictures.

A second and more complex reason young children with autism may not be talking, is that they may not be very interested in other people. Other than the fact that other people are necessary to get them things they want, like a drink of apple juice, or to make something unpleasant stop, like their little brother’s crying, they may not care very much about interacting with other people. Some prefer to be left alone and allowed to self-stimulate. Even children who are bonded to their mom’s (i.e. they look to her as a source of security) may show little interest in communicating with her otherwise.

Most children with autism have little interest in providing other people with information, like “I’m going outdoors now,” which requires understanding your mother would be interested in knowing where you are going. Further, the child needs to care that her mother wants to know that fact. In other words, she needs to be motivated by what her mother cares about. Few younger children with autism care one way or the other whether their mother is interested in their whereabouts. As a result, the child doesn’t try to tell her. If a child has no notion that other people are interested in him or her, nor that he has reasons to be interested in those adults, she has difficulty grasping why she should want to communicate.

It takes many kids with autism a long time to catch on to the idea that communication is an extraordinarily efficient, short hand way to making things happen in their world. In the beginning they cry, hit or push as a means of communicating “I want….” or “Stop.” But eventually they begin to catch on that it’s a whale of a lot easier to show a PECS card, or say, “Help please,” or push a button on a vocal output device that says, “Help,” than lying down on the floor and screaming or throwing their Jello pudding across the room, or scratching their face, in order to get their Dad’s attention.

At some point, like all other young children, many kids with autism begin to show interest in having their parents’ attend to their achievements. They may draw a picture with markers, or kick the ball so it ricochet’s across the room, or dog-paddle across the pool, and they want their parents to notice what they have done, and to say something or do something, like clap their hands and say, “Yeah, that’s terrific!” Parent and teacher approval begins to matter to them. It starts to become important that their siblings or peers laugh when they do something silly.

Finally, one day something exciting happens to which they want to draw to their parents’ or teacher’s attention, like a fire truck drives by outside the window, or a new baby Hamster in born the cage in the classroom or a dolphin swims across the front of the aquarium at the zoo. The child points and makes a loud inarticulate sound. Eventually the teacher asks, “What do you see?” and the child with autism points to the new baby hamster and says “Buh-bee.” That is the beginning of labeling, the discovery they can identify things they see, hear, taste, smell or feel, and can tell other people about them. Now the child can begin to share their interests with others.

But be forewarned, there isn’t any magic involved. There isn’t any device that alone will enable your child to communicate. The staff and parents who work with your child must understand how that particular device must be used to be effective. It takes a great deal of practice learning how to incorporate an Augmentative or Alternative Communication system into your child’s and your life. The notion that one can simply plunk a colorful electronic device or a PECS board down in front of your child and he or she will begin creating meaningful communication is misguided. As appealing as that idea is, it almost never happens that way.

For each and every child with autism, it must be determined on a case-by-case basis, the reasons they are not using spoken communication and the best strategies for addressing that challenge. An applied behavior analyst working in close collaboration with an experienced speech language pathologist, can often create a strategy for developing an effective communication system for a given child, and consult with parents and teachers in devising strategies for incorporating communication into everything the child does throughout her/his day.