Not talking is not the same as having nothing to say. This is a common statement from speech and other therapists about their clients who are considered non-verbal, but not always non-communicative.
Many children with special needs are what we consider non-verbal or having limited language skills. When therapists say this they mean that the children are using few or no spoken words. They may make some sounds in communication and they may not. They may or may not use gestures to support these sounds and communicate with those around them. Working with children with limited expressive language skills can be frustrating for the adults around them, but even more frustrating for the child trying to communicate.
Often, these children understand much more of what is said around them than they can express in return. In other words their receptive language skills are more developed than their expressive language skills. They can feel trapped in their own minds and behave accordingly. Hitting, kicking, slapping, pinching, and other “negative” behaviors can be used to express their frustration. Rather than immediately labeling them as a behavior problem, good therapists and teachers look to find solutions for these communication problems.
The first approach for many of these children is sign language. Because fine motor skills can develop sooner than oral motor skills children can move their hands to talk before they can use their mouth. Simple signs like more, all done, help, please, and mine can convey many different needs and desires. These can also be learned through a hand-over-hand technique where the parent or therapist moves the child’s hands for them to communicate until the child is either able to do it on their own or finds their words in other ways.
Another technique is using photographs or line drawings to communicate. Some children are visual learners. Pictures make more sense to them and make it easy to learn and use for communication. Being able to hand an adult a picture and receive what they want can be a huge accomplishment for a child who has struggled to communicate in the past.
For those who continue to have difficulty letting others know what they want and need there is an ever growing arsenal of communication devices. From simple switches which turn on toys or make single statements when pressed to miniature computers or iPads programmed for complex sentences and multiple screens for communication, more and more children are turning to technology to communicate with others in their environment. For many families, using a communication device is the first time they heard their child’s thoughts or understood what they need.
Speech therapists and communication specialists can determine through an evaluation which device is appropriate for each child. No two children are the same and the same system may not work as well for ever child. These tools are not necessarily the last word in communication for these children. For some, removing the frustration of not being able to communicate increases their ability to make gains in speech. The end goal is to allow every child access to the tools they need to express themselves. After all, not talking is NOT the same as not having anything to say.
©R. Wellman 2011