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How to Communicate With Someone Who is Non-Verbal

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Word cloud containing words that relate to non verbal communication

As a Speech Pathologist, working with non-verbal adults, Tasha-Bea Sergay from Specialised Speech Pathology often gets asked by carers and families how they can better communicate with a non-verbal loved one.

To help us answer this important question for the MyCareSpace community, we had Tasha-Bea lend us her knowledge and expertise. 

Here's what she had to say...

What does non-verbal actually mean?

To be considered non-verbal, someone must only be able to speak a few words. But, speaking few words doesn't mean non-verbal people don't want to communicate.

Experts agree that around 70-90% of all communication is actually non-verbal.

Communication is really just the way we choose to exchanges ideas, needs, wants, feelings, stories and events.

Communication doesn't need to be spoken word, for example, dance, art or music. 

Non-verbal people often get their message across using non-verbal communication strategies as well, such as body language, signs, facial expressions and visual supports. 

Why are some people non-verbal?

There are many reasons why someone may be non-verbal.

They may be born with it (cerebral palsy, autism, global development delay), or some may become non-verbal (stroke, trauma, brain injury).

And sometimes we don't know why it happens, like non-verbal autism: we know that some autistic people never develop spoken words, but we don't really know why. 

How do I know if someone is non-verbal?

  • They repeat words and phrases over and over but the words don't convey a particular meaning

  • They use sign, sounds or pictures to express themselves instead of using words

  • They might find it hard to understand body language or interpret spoken words (like instructions), particularly if they have an intellectual disability

  • It's important to remember that everybody is different and we should never assume that being non-verbal indicates a lack of intelligence or understanding.

How does being non-verbal impact your life?

That depends on the person. Spoken word is still one of our primary means of communicating, so being non-verbal can really impact the way someone integrates into their community. 

Here are some of the challenges non-verbal people face:

  • Difficulty expressing wants and needs.
  • Difficulting having wants and needs understood.
  • Exhibiting behaviours of concern, like aggression, meltdowns or self-harm, are often born out of frustration because they can't get their message across or feel misunderstood.
  • Difficulty making connections and forming relationships.
  • Feelings of social isolation.
  • Mental health challenges.
  • Engaging in everyday tasks without the need for additional support, like ordering take-out, going to the shops or asking for help.
  • Gaining meaningful employment

​Despite these challenges, non-verbal people can live a quality life, be independent and form connections with others.

Many people who are non-verbal have friends, learn, make their own goals and feel accepted and supported.

Having supports in place from other health care professionals really helps to achieve this.

How to improve your communication with someone who is non-verbal

Here are Tasha-Bea's key tips on how to best communicate with and support someone who is non-verbal:

5 things to avoid when communicating with a non-verbal person

  1. Don’t presume that because they are quiet, they don't have a preference, opinion or feeling
  2. Don’t ignore their attempts to communicate
  3. Try not to guess what they want all the time
  4. Don’t talk about them in their presence
  5. If someone has difficulties understanding information, try not to speak in long complex sentences or use multi-step instructions

10 things you can do when communicating with a non-verbal person

  1. Presume competence
  2. Provide choice. This may be through offering physical objects to choose from or using visuals to help them decide
  3. Respond to communication attempts through positive reinforcement (such as smiling and verbally responding)
  4. If you don’t know what your loved one is trying to say, encourage them to use other methods of communication to get their message across
  5. Be patient. You may feel the need to speak ‘for’ an individual who isn’t speaking for themselves, but rather allow time for them to get their message across and gather their thoughts to communicate through whatever means they want
  6. Think about non-verbal activities to encourage connection and social interaction. Since our connection with others is not simply the words we say, finding other ways to engage is very meaningful and impactful
  7. Engage in activities you know they enjoy. By knowing what engages your loved one, use this interest during activities to build a connection
  8. Listen to what is being communicated, not just speech. Take note of non-verbal signs by being aware of behaviours, facial expressions and body language
  9. Don’t push or force. If you sense them feeling overwhelmed, rather take a break and try again later at a better time
  10. Communicate in a consistent and predictable way, as well as using modelling (showing the 'what') and prompting (showing the 'when')


The support needs of people who are non-verbal are very individual and depend on a number of different factors including their diagnosis, individual strengths, age and current challenges.

It is recommended you engage Allied Health professionals, including:

  • Speech Pathologists
  • Psychologists
  • Occupational Therapists
  • Dieticians

Finding appropriate social groups can also be helpful.

How can a Speech Pathologist help with non-verbal communication?

Speech Pathologists play an important role in supporting people who are non-verbal, by:

  • Identifying and assessing individual strengths and challenges using both formal and informal assessment measures.
  • Working with individuals who are non-verbal and their families or carers.
  • Collaboratively identifying strategies and methods of communication that may assist the individual to communicate more effectively without speech.
    That may include using pictures, gestures, body language, speech-generating devices, sign language or alphabet boards.
  • Educating carers and parents and providing strategies and supports they may need to assist their loved one to reach their full communicative potential. 

Joseph's Story

Tasha-Bea was able to change Joseph's life with Speech Therapy.

Joseph is a 35yr old autistic man with an intellectual disability. He lives in a Supportive Independent Living (SIL) accommodation and enjoys cooking, going for long walks, puzzles and coffee.

Joseph finds it really tricky using and understanding spoken words.

Joseph has rote learnt some phrases, but those words don't carry the same meaning as they do for you or I.

He came to Tasha-Bea with significant communication challenges and deep feelings of frustration and anger.

Through Speech Therapy, Tasha-Bea was able to help Joseph develop multi-model communication through the use of signs, gestures, facial expressions, noises and visuals.

Tasha-Bea also focused on teaching family members how to communicate with Joseph (Communication Partner Training, or CPT), meaning his ability to communicate with the people around him has significantly improved, as well as the enjoyment Joseph experiences when communicating.

As a visual aid, Joseph uses Proloquo2Go (an app available on the App Store for iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch) to help him make choices, request, comment and share information about his day.

He now produces a number of signs and gestures to make his wants and needs to be known.

Joseph’s visual supports not only support his ability to communicate, but also his understanding of the world around him and what to expect.

Through his work with Tasha-Bea, Joseph has made incredible progress, and as a result, he feels less frustrated and angry.

And it isn't just Joseph whose life is impacted by Speech Therapy. His mother Mary has also shared in his victories along the way, as well as other members of Joseph's team such as his support workers and other supports. 

Specialised speech pathologyIf you or your loved one are non-verbal and in need of support, Tasha-Bea's services are available to non-verbal adults.
Her clinic, Specialised Speech Pathology, is located in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, NSW. 

Are you looking for allied health services?

For speech pathologists, or other allied health services with capacity in your area, please reach out to the MyCareSpace team for assistance


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