The most beautiful exchanges I’ve witnessed have been between not-so-verbal children and their parents. There is a belief that many autistic children do not want to communicate or socialize, but my experience has been much the opposite. These children have an extreme desire to communicate, but their motor challenges and sensitivity to their environment often block their ability to verbalize. Their nonverbal communication can be much more subtle and refined, but perfectly clear if you know what to look for.
Below, my good friend and fellow autism specialist, Danelle Shouse, explains how her autistic daughter, Olivia, communicates with her through music.
“The most natural way my daughter Olivia connects with me is through music. She finds ways to grab my attention so I receive the message in the lyrics. One of the most recent examples of her sending me a message through song occurred while we were watching the popular singing competition The Voice. As one of the performances was about to begin, Olivia took my hand and stared deeply into my eyes. We listened together as the song began:
I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you
As soon as this first verse of the song was finished, she gently let go of my hand and went about her play, beaming from ear to ear. I felt my heart swell with love. I heard her message loud and clear. I looked over at my mom who witnessed this exchange. She had tears in her eyes, realizing how powerful the moment was for all of us.
Even though Olivia cannot verbally express to me how much she loves and appreciates me, she finds ways to let me know.
And baby girl, I feel exactly the same way. God only knows what I’d be without you.”
Understanding the autistic world sets the stage for communication.
Having a good understanding of your not-so-verbal child’s challenges and their special abilities will help you discover their nonverbal communication styles. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Autistic children may have very functional minds, but there is an impaired connection between their minds and their musculoskeletal system, making speech difficult.
- Autistic children are extremely sensitive to their environment. Light, sound, touch, and taste can all be overwhelming to their nervous system and distract them from paying attention to you.
- Autistic children are highly empathic and often mirror the feelings and moods of those around them. Anxiety in a parent can be highly distracting to them.
- Autistic children’s heightened senses are what give them the ability to communicate in very subtle and intuitive ways that may be easily overlooked by the untrained observer.
- Autistic children often understand what you are saying and want so badly to communicate their thoughts with you.
Steps to Creating Connection and Communication
Step one in learning how to communicate with a not-so-verbal child is to make a commitment to slow down and meet them somewhere in the middle. Autistic children are all too used to being pressured to fit into our “normal” reality, so when we make it clear that we want to step halfway into their world, they often light up.
Step two is to work on calming yourself down so that you can be fully present with your child. As was mentioned in the list above, autistic children will mirror the way you’re feeling. So, if you’re anxious and uneasy, they will be too, and this will block communication from happening. There are many ways to self-calm, including deep breathing, meditation, yoga, etc… Try taking just 5 slow, full breaths before attempting to connect with your child.
Step three is to sit and be present with them. A good way to do this is to find ways to catch their attention with something they are fascinated with. Let them associate the joy they experience from that object or activity with you. Watch them open up to your offering. Embrace your child fully for who they are. Try not to force communication. Just come in with an open mind and an open heart, accepting all possibilities. When your child can feel a sense of safety in being themselves on a deep level, they will trust in having a connection with you. Expect nothing short of a miracle and in time that is what you may receive.
Step four is to look for the ways they may be trying to communicate with you. Children with not-so-verbal autism have a funny way of communicating their needs, especially when it comes to love. They have loud roars that say pay attention. They have quick, rigid embraces that say, “I appreciated that!” They have deep gazes that say, “I love you so much.” They find their own ways to get their messages across. See the love, feel the love, and give it back in ways both of you will understand.
Here are a few more subtle signs of communication to look for.
- A “sense” that your child is closely paying attention to you, even though they may not be looking at you.
- Pay attention to their eyes, especially when they give you a deep stare when you least expect it.
- An unexpected gentle and loving touch on your arm or your heart when you most need it.
- Singing you a particular song with a certain meaning.
- Playing a line over and over again from a song, movie, or TV show.
- Pacing or excessive movements when they pick up anxiety and tension.
- Difficulty relaxing in certain environments.
Eventually, communication with your not-so-verbal child will likely become very intuitive and help pave the way for other forms of communication. Dr. Diane Powell, an MD, neuroscientist and geneticist, has been studying intuitive communication in nonverbal autistic children for years. Intuitive communication is mind-to-mind communication with no external actions. Some scientists who propose the quantum entanglement theory believe these messages are sent through the magnetic fields that surround our Earth and each of us individually.
It’s an abstract concept, but animals, birds and bugs are all capable of it, and there is a growing community of parents who are experiencing this with their not-so-verbal children. Dr. Powell recently wrote about intuitive communication and why nonverbal children may have this unique ability in the scientific publication EdgeScience, which can be downloaded here for free.