kids talking

Many children diagnosed with autism face challenges when it comes to speech and communication and up to 30% of children on the spectrum never develop spoken language. Keep reading to learn more about nonverbal autism, its early signs, and the ways ABA therapy can help improve your child’s communication skills.

What Is Nonverbal Autism?

A child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder who doesn’t speak or has very limited use of verbal communication by the age of four is considered to have nonverbal autism. Some children with nonverbal autism may be able to use a few words or understand spoken language, however, they are typically unable to communicate in a meaningful way.


It is important to note that nonverbal autism is not a distinct diagnosis from autism spectrum disorder. Rather, it’s a term used for a subgroup of children with autism who never learn to speak more than a few words. Nonverbal autism tends to occur in what is known as severe or level 3 autism. 


Nonverbal autism is also sometimes called nonspeaking autism, referring to the fact that although these children don’t speak, they may still be able to use words in other ways, for example, in writing. 

Causes of nonverbal autism

There is currently no scientific explanation for nonverbal autism. Some recent studies suggest that nonverbal children may have deficits in the oscillations of gamma and theta waves in their brains when processing semantic information. In addition, some children with autism have a speech sound disorder known as childhood apraxia that affects their speech abilities. 

Until recently, it was assumed that children with nonverbal autism were intellectually disabled, given that their IQ scores were typically under 70. However, researchers believe that IQ tests are not reliable tools for measuring intellectual ability in children with autism, particularly when they are nonverbal and that the absence of communication doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of understanding.

Recognizing the Signs of Nonverbal Autism

The main symptom of nonverbal autism is the inability to speak clearly and without interference. 

Other early signs in young children include: 

  • Not meeting developmental milestones for language
  • Not responding to their name by 12 months old
  • Not babbling and laughing by 12 months old
  • Not pointing to objects by 14 months old
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Speech and language regression
  • Not spontaneously initiating or responding to conversation
  • Using only a few words
  • Not speaking in complete sentences
  • Not relying on spoken language as a primary form of communication, for example, using sounds instead of words to communicate.

Other than the symptoms listed above, your child will also display common signs of autism, including:

  • Inability to understand social cues and gestures
  • Difficulty expressing emotions and understanding the emotions of others
  • Sensory challenges, such as feeling overwhelmed by bright lights, noise, or touch
  • Repetitive body movements like rocking, flapping, spinning, and running back and forth 
  • Ritualistic behaviors, such as lining up toys, or performing actions in a set order
  • Resistance to changes in routine
  • Narrow interests in specific topics like trains or animals.

How is nonverbal autism diagnosed?

Diagnosing a child with nonverbal autism is a challenging task, because there is often no clear distinction between children with different types of communication difficulties, such as:

  • Preverbal children who have not yet developed verbal language 
  • Nonverbal children who have no spoken language
  • Non-communicative children who lack verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

To get a confirmed diagnosis, physicians and therapists must perform a range of tests, including a physical examination, MRI and CT scans, blood tests, and hearing tests. These examinations allow the professionals to rule out any other developmental or physical disabilities that may impede the child’s speech. 

Furthermore, it may be necessary to use standardized assessment tools like the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS-3) and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) for examining young children with severe language and speech delays.

When to see a professional

If you notice that your child is not meeting developmental language milestones, you may want to see a professional. 


For toddlers who don’t babble or speak, you should consult a therapist or a speech-language pathologist. They will conduct the required examinations and evaluations to identify if your child has nonverbal autism. 

For older children, you can check your child’s language development and speech with the help of a standardized vocabulary checklist, such as the Language Development Survey (LDS). This tool helps identify language delays in children ages 18-35 months based on their use of vocabulary and word combinations.

How ABA Therapy Can Help

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy is a common support intervention for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. With more than a 90% improvement rate, this is currently the most successful treatment for autism. 


ABA therapy works by breaking down the essential skills that a child needs to learn or improve into small, concrete steps. The child can then advance toward more significant changes in functioning and independence levels. 


ABA therapists use positive reinforcement in the form of rewards, praise, and other incentives.  In nonverbal children, rewards are used to encourage them to speak instead of letting them rely on non-verbal cues. For example, the child will receive reinforcement for every correct use of a word or sound. 


When the desired behavior is followed by a motivator, such as a special toy or activity, the child will be more likely to repeat the action. In most cases, this method leads to significant improvements in behavior.

ABA therapy and language skills

One of the most commonly used methods for improving communication skills in children with autism is discrete trial training. In this highly structured ABA technique, language skills are broken into smaller, easily taught components. For instance, the therapist may work with a child on pronouncing a specific sound or learning one color at a time. 


Other techniques ABA therapists may use are vocal imitation, labeling objects and actions, and manding, performed in a fun and rewarding environment that will help reduce the child’s avoidance and escape behaviors.


 ABA therapy effectively contributes to improving communication and language skills, such as:

  • Naming or describing items or actions
  • Requesting desired items
  • Using receptive language, for example, following instructions
  • Engaging in appropriate social communication with peers.

Sometimes, ABA therapy should be complemented by speech therapy to help your child communicate in the most functional way possible. Speech therapy will address issues typically occurring in children with autism, such as humming, speaking in a song-like way, echolalia, expressionless tone, robotic-toned speech, shrieking, and yelling.

Teaching alternative means of communication

For older nonverbal children with autism, ABA therapy may be an effective way to teach other means of communication, including: 

  • Sign language
  • Communication boards
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Augmentative communication devices (iPads and other technology)
  • Speech Generating Devices (SGDs).

Benefits of ABA therapy on speech development

Early-intervention ABA therapy is the only current treatment that can help nonspeaking children with autism to become verbal. Through intensive therapy, many children with extreme language delays can learn to speak. Statistics show that after intensive ABA treatment, 47% of children with nonverbal autism become fluent speakers, while around 70% learn to speak in simple sentences. 


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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