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Methods of Communicating with a Non-Verbal Child

Working with flash cards to learn language - my son with me

Working with flash cards to learn language - my son with me

By the time my son was a year old, he should have started speaking. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website by twelve months old, a baby should be able to say a few small words like “mama” and “dada,” should understand “no” and simple single-step instructions should turn and look in the direction of any sounds they hear, and should try to imitate words. My son’s pediatrician asked if, assuming my son wasn’t speaking by fifteen months, would my husband and I be willing to let the local Early Childhood Intervention team come and examine him and determine if he’d benefit from speech therapy.

To make a long story short, my son was diagnosed as autistic when he was two, and he struggled to communicate. Until he was almost two and a half, he was non-verbal. Because of that, we learned two of the most common alternatives that are used to help non-verbal children to communicate: PECS and ASL.

PECS: Phase One

PECS: Picture Exchange Communication System

PECS stands for picture exchange communication system. As per an article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, PECS is “an augmentative communication system frequently used with children with autism.

There are several ways to implement PECS, and, as the child gets older, it can also change along with the child’s abilities. The basic method is to use images (photographs or drawings) of items that are “exchanged” for the items that are pictured.

One of the most common ways to use PECS is to create a board of images that are laminated and attached using Velcro. The child can select the image from the board and trade the image for the actual item. Of course, it’s not just boards with Velcro that you can use. For our son, we bought little photo albums from the dollar store and then took pictures of things around the house and let our son turn through the book and point to the items he wanted. It worked great for us and was as simple and inexpensive as could be.

Now, as the child gets older, the idea is that it isn’t just a quick exchange of image for item. Using boards or speech devices, children can actually create sentences that use images with words and then just words. It allows the children to move from simple images to full written language.

Pros/Cons for PECS


Easy to use

Inability to communicate without PECS

Easy to transport

Over-reliance on PECS

Can use actual pictures which help children who cannot generalize

Will help to build to written language or possibly verbal language

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Signing Times: Cook

ASL: American Sign Language

ASL stands for American Sign Language. According to the National Association of the Deaf, ASL is a visual language “with its own unique rules of grammar and syntax. Like all languages, ASL is a living language that grows and changes over time.” There are books and videos to help you and your child learn it.

For us, it helped us move forward. We began with PECS, moved to ASL, and then achieved speech. Perhaps the most useful tool was a series of videos called “Signing Times.” They are aimed at children, and they include songs to help practice the signs. As the series has grown, they’ve also introduced other products, like flash cards, to help children practice.

The American manual alphabet in photographs

The American manual alphabet in photographs

Pros/Cons for ASL


It is an official langauge, even taught in some high schools and colleges

May be harder for the child to learn due to grammar/syntax

It is possible to find translators and others who speak it

Requires physical abilities that some non-verbal children may struggle with


If your child is non-verbal, first talk to your pediatrician or look for your local Early Childhood Intervention in your city and state. Early intervention is crucial for communication break-throughs, and only you and your trained professional can decide what the best method is for you and your child.


Kaitlyn Alory on July 18, 2015:

I am actually going to figure out a way sign can help my legally blind and otherwise special needs 5 month old. I'm not sure how yet, but I am going to find a way!

nsnorth from Pittsburgh, PA on January 28, 2013:

Early communication is definitely crucial to a child's growth and development. Thank you for sharing your experience and advice!

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