How to Teach a Nonverbal Child to Start Talking

As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, I know how important language is for children with autism or signs of autism. I’ve worked with many nonverbal children both in person and through my online courses, and have figured out what works and what doesn’t when teaching a toddler to talk. These same techniques work for older kids with autism who may be considered a nonverbal child too. In the past, I’ve called kids that don’t yet speak “non-vocal” instead of “non-verbal” because technically even infants who cry for a bottle or for a diaper change are verbal. But lately, I’ve switched back to nonverbal because it’s what most people use to describe children with little to no speech. I’ve also met few children who are not saying anything as most nonverbal children often babble, many say a few words “here and there,” and some even talk in little phrases that are not functional.

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I am also an autism mom, having raised two boys, one with autism and one without. I’ve seen parents focus too hard on getting full sentences, or focusing on words instead of syllables, and essentially not seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to language acquisition. I’ve also made these mistakes myself in the past.

Maybe you have a child that seems to understand you but doesn’t talk, or they babble but can’t speak clearly. Or maybe your child isn’t speaking because they don’t understand what you are saying. With autism, both are possible. When teaching a toddler to talk, I usually assume that the child can’t understand full sentences and go from there.

I prefer a holistic approach to get a nonverbal child talking. You need to start where your child is at and then build language by getting them asking for things they want. I’ve laid out some simple tips on how to teach a toddler to talk. If you are interested in going deeper and allowing me to really help your child, I suggest you register for one of my free online workshops:

When I first meet a new client, I like to assess them as a whole, not just on how well they can speak. Usually, if a child is having a hard time talking, they have other problems as well. If a child isn’t able to speak by age 2 or 3, they probably have problems with feeding. Maybe they still use a bottle or are attached to a pacifier. Maybe they still prefer mushy foods. In order to really help your child, I want to address these issues as well as help them learn to speak. Helping a child to eat solid foods or drink from an open cup will also help them with vocal speech. I also look at other areas such as sleep, potty training, comprehension, and problem behaviors.

Assessment on Tablet with Everett Pointing

A nonverbal child may not respond to your echoic control. Echoic control is when you are able to tell your child “say ball,” and they will say the word ball even if a ball isn’t in front of them. Gaining echoic control, and keeping a list of words that your child can say, will be a big part of how we teach your toddler to talk.

If you want to get your child to talk more, you need to learn my number one technique for increasing talking. That’s focusing on words that are important to your child. That list you created of all the words or sounds your child can say will be a great place to start. Which do they say most often? Which are the most necessary for communicating with you and other people throughout the day? These should be simple words like mama, juice, bed, up, down, etc. Notice that these words are all one to two syllables. The smaller the word, the better when first starting out.

To teach your child new words and to reinforce words they already know, you want to slow down your speech and keep the conversation really simple. Think of it like you are learning a new language to visit a foreign country. Think about what words you might need to know to get your needs met. For instance, you might need to know how to say the words eat, bathroom, and water. Now if you got to this foreign country and still didn’t know the word water and I said “oohie owie ubee,” meaning “do you want some water?”, you would not know what part of that sentence meant water. However, if I slow things down and say “ubee, ubee, ubee” as I hand you water, you will quickly learn that “ubee” means water.

You’ll do the same thing with your nonverbal child, whether he or she is a toddler with a speech delay or a nonverbal teen with severe autism. When you want them to climb up the stairs, step on a stair and tell them “up, up, up” slowly, before taking the next step. Then, when they follow, say it again. “Up, up, up.” The more you reinforce that one word, the more your child will be able to recognize that “up” means go up the stairs. If you tried to tell them “Tommy, go up the stairs,” they may not fully grasp what you mean. Saying words in isolation will be a lot easier for them to grasp.

That’s why I want to introduce you to my free download, The Shoebox Program. This is a seven-step process that you can use with your child to help them learn words in isolation. It’s called the Shoebox Program because you will use pictures of objects that are important to your child in a shoebox that you will be able to use as flashcards on a daily basis.

To download shoe-box guide, go to

Assessment on Tablet with Everett Pointing