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5 Easy Ways to Communicate with Someone Who is Non-Verbal

How to speak to people who don’t speak

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The first time I tried communicating with a non-verbal child, I completely emabarrassed myself infront of several professionals.

I was at an interview. I turned up looking for TA work again, expecting it to be general special needs classroom support.

Having researched the school and brushed up on interview questions I was all ready to go and smash it. I knew there would be an observation of my interactions with the children, but I honestly (and foolishly) thought that would be the easiest part.

About 30 seconds before entering the nursery classroom, I was told the child was non-verbal and delayed developmentally. Until that moment, all of my experience had been in mainstream schools with children able to participate in conversations verbally.

The child, though adorable, was indeed a child with high needs.

I introduced myself, he looked away. I tried to get involved in his play, he pulled away further. I tried to direct him to change task, he threw his toys.

After ten minutes of shamefully talking at this poor child while the nursery teacher awkwardly looked on, I was called out of the classroom to finish my interview. I am sure I don’t need to say it, but I was not successful.

This article is for if you’re speaking to babies who don’t speak yet, people with additional needs, someone who is hearing impaired or anyone who just can’t verbalise.

Don’t embarrass yourself like I did.

Here’s how to talk to people who don’t speak:

1) Behaviour Is Communication.

This is a basic, key concept that anyone dealing with people (so, everyone really) should know. But, somehow, it is often forgotten.

Famously, research studies from the 1960s observed that up to 93% of communication is non-verbal. This study has come under some criticism for its methodology (see article) but it still highlights how important non-verbals are to communication and understanding.

If you want to communicate with someone who does not verbalise, you need to be observing.

Stop what you are doing and really look at that person’s behaviour and expression. Listen to any noises that person may make. Most importantly, contextualise these things (what is happening around them? What happened just before?).

At my interview, I ignored the child turning away from me multiple times. This was an indication that I needed to back off a little. I was coming on wayyy too strong. Rather than observing and reacting, I remained more focused on my side of the interaction. The interaction wasn’t about me. Observation of behaviour is key.

2) Use Simple Words and Sentences.

Now is not the time to exercise your extensive degree-level vocabulary (I will admit I’m a glutton for fancy-pants language too).

You may be very highly educated, and the person you are speaking to might also be really highly educated. However, from my experience spoken words are most often used functionally for someone who is non-verbal.

At my interview, my mistake involved using too many words, too quickly. In five seconds I probably said:

Hi my name is Katrina, what’s your name? That’s a nice little froggy, can I see? What are you doing there?

That’s three questions, not to exclude multiple pieces of information, for that 4 year old child, with high needs, to process. No wonder he looked confused and turned away. Had the roles been reversed, I probably would have too!

Think carefully about the words you are going to say and make sure you only say what is completely vital to get the piece of information across.

Instead of:

‘When I go home at 4pm I’ll slice up some veggies for dinner and then do a little stretching before my evening run.’

Go for:

‘Later, I will eat dinner. Then I will go for a run.’

Same information, less words.

Repetition of key words and instructions can be helpful too. You can do this without being patronising by knowing the individual and assessing the situation in the moment.

Read the situation (observe) and use your language clearly and concisely.

3) Wait (longer than you may usually) for a response

Quite a few non-verbal people also have difficulties processing sensory information. A very common type of sensory difficulty is called auditory processing disorder.

This means that an individual might need significant amount of time to: decifer your voice from other surrounding sounds, take in what you have said, understand it within the situation/context, think of a response, figure out how to word it in a way that makes sense and then verbalise it (if they can).

That’s a lot!

Even if you are waiting for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (shake or nod of the head) you should be prepared to wait up to a minute or two for a response. This may seem like a long time. However, if you are sure that person has heard you, give them a chance to respond.

Remember, this is about supporting another person’s basic human right to communicate and be heard. Be patient.

4) Use Images.

Hey, great pecs!

Ok, childish giggling aside, PECS stands for picture exchange communication system. This system is truly amazing.

I see PECS used by children with special needs every time I work in schools. It is an extremely flexible and accessible resource. Not only that, it is fully adaptable, inexpensive and easy to create. There are hundreds and hundreds of resources online for free too.

It usually consists of a simple word (i.e. ‘cake’ ‘toilet’ or ‘walk’) beneath an image that clearly depicts it. This would be printed, cut out, laminated and, often, have velcro attached to the back of it.

Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Picture_Exchange_Communication_System_example.jpg

Individuals can then use these images/words to communicate (told you, amazing). That could be individual words, or they can be velcro-ed onto a timetable or in a line to create a schedule or sentence.

PECS is superb because it is accessible to anyone who can see and recognise an image. That person isn’t then held back by their ability to read, create sentences or understand complex speech.

The most common use of PECS I see in schools is ‘toilet’. If PECS has done anything at all for schools and parents, it has saved a lot of little accidents from happening. This is fantastic news, besides all the other great benefits!

5) Learn Some Basic Signs/Makaton.

It’s ok if Mr Tumble makes you cringe. He scares me a little too.

If you are a parent that has had to endure much Mr Tumble, you will probably know of Makaton. If not, here is a description from the Makaton website:

“Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression.”

Basically, if spoken language was at one end of a spectrum and british/american sign language was at the other, Makaton would sit between the two.

Unlike BSL or ASL (British or American sign language), Makaton uses spoken word and follows the patterns of speech. This means that signs can be used world-wide, in multiple different languages. It actually helps those with communication difficulties (and even babies) to learn language. How awesome is that?

Makaton is used for and by people with a whole range of needs. As it is world wide, it is a really useful skill to learn. It is difficult for me to explain it in too much depth in one article, so I will attach a useful video here.

Not only does Makaton support communication but, I have found, it really helps you to develop a relationship with those that use it. Sometimes I am one of only one or two people using Makaton in a school. On those occasions, being able to communicate with non-verbal children using Makaton is so special.

Even learning 10–30 basic signs could make a huge difference to someone else’s life. Have a look at level one signs online and give it a go.

Hopefully, I have managed to give you a few pointers on communication with non-verbal individuals! Let me know your thoughts below.

There are lots of methods of communication you and others can use, these are just some beginner and straight-forward things to get started with. All jokes aside, I do think Mr Tumble has been an amazing promoter of Makaton for people of all ages and abilities… #nohate. If you would like any further support, use the NHS, Makaton and PECS websites, or feel free to email me at katrinaspeaksmedium@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to support and direct you. Thanks :).

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Katrina Roberts

Katrina Roberts

Works with the best people ever (kids with special needs). Special ed. & autism post-grad and creative writing grad. PA to a tabby cat-queen. Walks into things.