What Is Your Nonverbal Child With Autism Telling You?

Raising a nonverbal child with autism can be a challenge. An expert from ChildFirst Behavior Therapy shares clues to figuring out what your child is communicating.

Before a child learns to speak, new parents use a game of trial and error to figure out what their child needs. For a nonverbal child on the autism spectrum, that trial-and-error period can extend into years.

Yet, children without verbal skills are still communicating, and parents are uniquely positioned to intuit what they are trying to say, says Board Certified Behavior Analyst Ashley Musial, M.Ed, mother to six boys and owner of ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy provider in Arlington Heights.

In her work as a Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA), Musial uses ABA therapy, a clinically proven method to build social skills, routines and effective communication for individuals with autism and other developmental challenges.

“When it comes to figuring out what your child is communicating, confidence is just as important as technique,” Musial says. “As a parent, I would say you are more equipped than you think you are.”

Even before they receive an autism diagnosis, parents may recognize that their child doesn’t react to their name, acknowledge the presence of others or respond to requests.

“I hear a lot of parents say, ‘I’m not sure what is going on in his mind,’ or ‘I just don’t know what she is thinking about.’ They might say their child’s behavior just comes out of nowhere. There is a level of desperation for the parents. It feels very defeating,” says Musial.

Finding new ways to read your child

Without words to explain what a child wants, needs or is thinking, parents, teachers and caregivers are left to connect the dots. Despite their exhaustive effort, that guesswork doesn’t always create an accurate picture, Musial explains.

“When we see hand flapping, pacing or rocking, we project what we might be feeling that would make us behave this way,” she says, adding that parents commonly assume their child is angry or anxious because their child is displaying behaviors similar to those that parents engage in when they are angry or anxious, such as pacing and hand wringing. It is normal and natural to see these connections. “In this way, parents are always trying to piece together what their child might be telling them.”

These repetitive behaviors, often referred to as stereotypy by researchers and therapists, are one of the most stigmatizing behaviors of autism and are often used to depict autism on television or in the media, Musial says.

But these behaviors, like anything else, provide clues to the many different needs or desires your child has. This is where confidence is key. Take note of when these behaviors are most likely to happen. Be observant and try to refrain from making conclusions after only one occurrence. Watch for at least three occurrences before concluding a behavior is happening for any particular reason; oftentimes, it requires more of a trend to be sure, Musial says.

Non-verbal kids with autism also use body-positioning and mimicking to signal a need or desire.

“Maybe you introduced a new food, like a goldfish cracker, at the kitchen counter. When they want it again, they position themselves in space in close proximity to where you gave it to them. They may look in the direction of where the goldfish are or where they were when you first offered them,” Musial says.

But if that signal is too subtle for the parent who is often juggling multiple tasks at once, the child might get upset.

“If standing there is not working, where else will they go to get their needs met? The desire still remains, and they are mimicking what happened last time they got goldfish crackers, so you might hear some irritated sounds followed by crying or a tantrum,” Musial says.

In short, the child may feel like they are communicating with the parent, but the parent may not be recognizing those behaviors as communication.

What comes before language

Other indicators for pre-language development that are identified in research include imitation, joint attention — which refers to shared focus of an object or activity with the child — and pointing at different objects.

“These are the indicators I look for when considering a language program for a child. If imitation, joint attention and pointing are not present, we focus on these skills first,” Musial says. She stresses the importance of working with an ABA therapy provider that has a strong understanding of verbal behavior and stays up to date on the latest research and literature.

“Look for Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE) accreditation, which is important. Not every ABA center is accredited,” she says.

Just like trained ABA therapists, parents of a child on the autism spectrum have tools available to better understand their child, create effective routines and communicate for more satisfying outcomes. Utilizing the resources of ABA therapy can be a powerful way to learn how to use these tools, Musial says.

“Ultimately, you are the one who is responsible for your child. You are steering the ship,” she says. “You can choose providers and tell them what you want for your child, and that’s a beautiful thing. Parents have so many freedoms to help their children, but you do need to educate yourself so you can be a strong advocate and make decisions for your child.”

Learn more about ChildFirst Behavior Therapy at childfirstbehaviortherapy.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


  1. I am very interested in learning how to communicate with my nonverbal grandson who is five. Do you have books? getting help but it’s very hard.


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