Communicating with Non-Verbal Children with Autism

Instructor: Lori Sturdivant

Lori has a specialist's degree in Instructional Leadership/Mild Moderate and currently serves as the Lead Teacher for The University of Southern Mississippi's Autism Project.

Are you looking for ways to increase communication with your non-verbal students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? This lesson includes low-tech strategies for doing just that!

What Does Non-Verbal Autism Mean?

The term 'nonverbal autism' is not a separate medical disorder, but rather a characteristic affecting roughly one quarter of the people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Non-verbal does not always mean that students can't speak. Sometimes non-verbal means that students do not have the ability to use words in a meaningful way; they may be echolalic, or repeat what is said to them or use words randomly. There are some students who may not be able to speak at all but are able to communicate with sign language and/or a communication board.

What is Simple Sign Language?

Simple sign language, sometimes referred to as baby sign language, uses universal hand motions for communicating basic wants and needs. You can teach yourself, your staff and your students some basic words for communicating. Start with words such as:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • More
  • Bathroom
  • All done

Signing the Words

Yes: With one hand, make a fist with your knuckles facing frontwards; move it up and down. The motion is similar to moving your head up and down.

No: On one hand, press your middle and index fingers together; tap your thumb twice at the same time.

Eat: With one hand, touch the tips of your fingers to the tip of your thumb; tap them on your mouth.

Drink: With one hand, make a semicircle as if you were holding a cup; move it up towards your mouth, like you're taking a drink from the cup.

More: Make the 'eat' symbol with both hands; touch the tips of one hand to the tips of the other hand.

Bathroom: On one hand, make a fist; tuck your thumb between your index and middle fingers. Then hold out your fist and slightly shake it around.

All done: Start with both hands up, chest high and palms facing towards you. At the same time, flip both hands so that your palms now face away from you.

You can incorporate more words as you see fit, but these will cover your students' most basic communication needs.

Modeling the Words

You can teach these signs by modeling them. For example, if you are teaching the word ~eat~, do so at breakfast, lunch and/or snack time and actually eat after you model the sign. Also, if you are teaching signs that represent locations such as the bathroom, teach them in or next to the room. You can also record yourself modeling the signs, and let students watch the videos. Seeing the sign and what it represents will help students make the connection between the two.

What is a Communication Board?

This is a board with pictures of objects or symbols on it. You can buy or make these boards, as shown below. Your students can communicate with you by pointing, touching or looking at a certain symbol or picture. They can even choose pictures from a bank of icons and place them on the board. You can make these boards as simple or complex as you want, based on your students' levels of abilities.

Making a Communication Board


  • Hard, flat object such as a thick piece of poster board or cut-up cardboard box
  • Black or dark blue fabric to which Velcro will stick
  • Velcro
  • Laminator
  • Computer and printer with colored ink

Homemade Communication Board


  • Cover the flat surface with the fabric.
  • Print out and laminate pictures or symbols that are relevant to your student.
  • Place Velcro on the back of each picture, and place the pictures on the board.

Make sure the pictures you use are the same size, font and style. Try to find simple and clean-cut images that are not distracting. You may have to teach what each picture represents, as the symbols may not mean anything to a student at first.

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