What Is Non-Verbal Autism?

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen

April 29, 2022

Non-verbal autism refers to a developmental delay where children cannot spontaneously communicate in words or sentences that others can comprehend. Non-verbal autism does not imply that a child cannot interact, or understand words or speech. It simply means that they are unable to use verbal language to communicate.

Some children on the non-verbal autism spectrum write and express themselves in other ways like typing, Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS), or Speech Generating Devices (SGDs). It is important to note that the absence of communication does not indicate a lack of understanding.

An overview of non-verbal autism

Autism spectrum disorder refers to an umbrella phrase used to label a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders in children. These developmental disorders then get grouped because they have comparable effects on a child's ability to:

  • Communicate
  • Behave appropriately 
  • Socialize
  • Develop

Small children may start babbling when they reach six months by trying to copy their parent's speech. This babbling indicates the early evolution of speech and language in a child. 

Many children with autism usually face challenges or delays in speech and communication, and some children may not speak at all. Non-verbal autism is when a child with autism does not speak, but may make a variety of vocalizations. 

Understanding the causes of non-verbal autism 

Presently, there is no scientific evidence to explain the cause of non-verbal autism. Neuroscientists, neurologists, and psychologists are constantly researching the potential reason why some children with autism can verbally communicate while others cannot.

According to recent studies, children on non-verbal children usually have deficits in the oscillations of gamma and theta waves in their brain. This information could unlock new research in the areas related to non-verbal autism. 

Some children with this developmental disorder might further have Childhood Apraxia Of Speech (CAS), making it almost impossible for these children to communicate without the help of a trained therapist or a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). 

Apart from helping a child speak properly, the pediatrician or therapist will also examine a child for any structural defects in the mouth and throat as well as hearing loss. This will rule out physiological abnormalities that may prevent a child from speaking.

Early signs of non-verbal autism

Identifying non-verbal autism as soon as possible is highly important — early intervention therapy is the most effective in working towards long-term communication goals. While it is not easy to identify the early indications of autism in young children, here are a few early signs that point towards the presence of non-verbal autism:

  • Within 12 months 
  • No reaction to someone calling their name
  • No giggling or babbling
  • Within 14 months
  • No pointing at any object
  • Within 24 months
  • No pretend play
  • General symptoms
  • No eye contact or different eye contact compared to typically developing peers
  • Choosing to remain alone
  • Becomes upset or restless by minor modifications in their day-to-day routine
  • Fluttering their hands (stimming) or rocking their bodies for comfort

Non-verbal autism diagnosis in children

When a child is over 12-months old and does not speak or babble, it is best to consult a therapist or a speech-language pathologist (SLP). A therapist can conduct the required examinations and evaluations to identify if your child has non-verbal autism or a physical defect. 

For older children, parents can also compare their child’s language development and speech with a standardized vocabulary checklist — if your child is missing developmental language milestones, you may want to consult with a professional. Many children on the autism spectrum will also face challenges initiating, continuing a conversation, or developing and maintaining a relationship.

To get a confirmed diagnosis, consult a therapist who can screen children for autism. Some medical tests that a therapist can perform are: 

  • A physical examination
  • MRI and CT scans
  • Blood tests
  • Hearing tests

The final evaluations of these medical tests may assist therapists in ruling out other developmental or physical disabilities. In addition, depending on these medical test reports, the therapist or pediatrician might request other tests or information, including: 

  • A complete medical history of the child and parents 
  • Older documents and medical reports of the mother’s pregnancy, complete with the list of medications taken during the time
  • A comprehensive assessment of the child’s health, medical treatments, and hospitalizations

In addition, a neurologist, psychologist, or therapist might use the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS-3) or Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) for examining younger children who are undergoing severe language and speech delays.

How can speech therapy help children with non-verbal autism?

Speech therapy for autism can help children overcome their developmental delays and speak freely without any help or interventions. Here are some ways in that speech therapy can help:

Speech therapy fosters interactions 

Children on the non-verbal autism spectrum typically react favorably to play-based speech therapy. Therapists integrate play-based therapy using toys that the child is interested in. This play therapy provides children with the opportunity to communicate with others in a calm, natural, and relaxed setting. 

Speech therapy can boost language understanding

Children with non-verbal autism sometimes face challenges understanding spoken languages. Attending therapy sessions with a seasoned SLP (Speech-Language Pathologist) or speech therapist can help children expand their understanding of oral communication.

Children on the non-verbal autism spectrum may also struggle with comprehending the speaker's intention. However, with therapy, children can learn to better understand non-verbal communication such as facial expressions.


If a child seems to fall behind traditional milestones for communicating, parents should consult a therapist or pediatrician. The sooner a child gets diagnosed with non-verbal autism, the quicker they can receive therapy sessions that may improve their capability to communicate and speak.

Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.