How to Communicate With a Nonspeaking Autistic Person

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Language note: Although individual preferences exist, surveys of the autistic community consistently show that autistic people prefer identity-first language rather than person-first language (i.e., “autistic person” rather than “person with autism”). This article reflects that community language preference.

In addition, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network reports that the community preference is to refer to “nonspeaking” people rather than “nonverbal” because many autistic people who do not use speech to communicate use words to communicate in other ways.

From an early age, we are taught to rely on speech as a primary means of communication with other people. However, some autistic people either do not use spoken language as a means of communication, and others can stop speaking during periods of stress or burnout. They may also use limited words or struggle with stuttering.

Some falsely assume that a nonspeaking autistic person is unable to make decisions about their life or care, or that a nonspeaking autistic person is less intelligent than those who use spoken language.

However, nonspeaking autistic people can communicate effectively in other ways if those around them are willing to listen. Learn strategies to understand and communicate with nonspeaking autistic people below.

How Autistic People Communicate

The National Institute of Health estimates that approximately 25% to 35% of autistic people are either nonspeaking or minimally speaking, meaning that they can verbalize some words but do not primarily rely on speech to communicate. Some therapies and interventions emphasize making the autistic person use verbal language, but this is often harmful to the autistic person.

Autism and Masking

Often, neurotypical people who work with autistic people rely on treatments and interventions that encourage autistic people to "mask" or act in a more neurotypical way. Masking might make an autistic person behave in a way that is more consistent with neurotypical standards; however, research shows that holding autistic people to neurotypical standards rather than meeting their needs is stressful and causes autistic people to develop post-traumatic stress disorder at ten times the rate of non-autistic people.

Some confuse non-speaking autism with selective mutism (or situational mutism as 'selective' implies choice. However, when an autistic person stops speaking due to burnout, this is related to fatigue while selective mutism occurs as a result of anxiety.

When a nonspeaking autistic person never uses spoken language, this is also not related to anxiety but indicates a different communication style.

There are many ways that a nonspeaking autistic person might communicate, and their support system can use the following communication styles and techniques to understand what the autistic person is trying to say.

Sign Language

Many in the Deaf community use sign language to communicate, and some nonspeaking hearing people also use this language to communicate. There are hundreds of different sign languages used around the world, and in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is the most common.

Sign language uses hand gestures and facial expressions instead of vocalized words, and ASL has a unique grammatical structure. If a hearing person uses ASL to communicate, they can often still understand things said to them and respond in sign. It should not be expected that verbal communication is the standard and folks that use sign language should not be required to read lips or speak.

If an autistic person you know is nonspeaking some or all of the time, they might use ASL to communicate. At a minimum, you can learn the ASL alphabet to help you understand them. If you are autistic and are nonspeaking some or all of the time, learning ASL could help you communicate without having to use spoken language.

Written or Typed Communication

Many nonspeaking autistic people can communicate using a phone, tablet, computer, or even paper and pen. Text-based communication is an easy alternative to spoken words because it uses the same language in written instead of spoken format.

As with sign language, if the person using written communication can hear, they can respond to spoken language in writing. Thus, caregivers can read what an autistic person has just typed.

Picture Communication

Sometimes, autistic people might not want or be able to use written or spelled words to communicate their needs. However, these individuals can still communicate their needs.

For example, by using a tablet or other electronic device, they can pull images that represent what they need to show caregivers. Caregivers can also provide images or charts that the nonspeaking person can use to communicate by pointing to the corresponding image.

Let the nonspeaking person indicate which images they want to use to signify different needs. Some needs are universal, like indicating hunger or thirst. Available images should also include comfort items, interests, and important people.

Communication Devices

In addition to phones, tablets, and other electronic devices, specific communication tools exist to help nonspeaking autistic people communicate. These tools are known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

AAC is often used when someone is always nonspeaking because they can keep the device on hand to communicate. If possible, the nonspeaking autistic person should try out various options and use the one that works best for them.

Many different AAC devices exist, including:

  • BIGmack Communicator: This device allows the individual to record phrases and words to re-play as needed. Since some autistic people communicate using echolalia (repeating words or phrases), they may find this method of communication comfortable and familiar.
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): This kind of device uses images and pictures to communicate, which can be particularly helpful for people who do not use written words in addition to spoken communication.
  • TouchChat: This type of communication device allows the user to press buttons indicating what they want to say, and the device verbalizes what they entered.
  • Dynavox: Similar to TouchChat, this device uses both button pressing and head movements, giving the user options for input.

Alternative Language

Not all nonspeaking autistic people are verbally mute. If the individual uses some sounds, ask them what sounds indicate certain words. Learn the language that works for them, and use that for communication.

Adapting to their alternative language will allow you to understand their needs and let them communicate using the method that is comfortable for them. This, in turn, reduces stress, burnout, and risk for trauma for the autistic person.

Some caregivers might be tempted to pressure autistic people to communicate in a neurotypical way as much as possible.

Language Evolves Over Time

However, remember that language is made up and always evolving. If it does not cause harm, it is OK to find other ways to communicate.

Autism Resources

For more information about autism, see the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, and Therapist Neurodiversity Collective.

NeuroClastic also has articles and blogs written by nonspeaking autistic people who have shared their stories. Other neurodiversity-affirming blogs include Neurodivergent Rebel and Autistic Hoya.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Civil Rights Complaint Against Arlington Public Schools (VA).

  2. xMinds. Nonspeaking Autistic Students Resources.

  3. Rose V, Trembath D, Keen D, Paynter J. The proportion of minimally verbal children with autism spectrum disorder in a community-based early intervention programme: Proportion of minimally verbal children with ASD. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. 2016;60(5):464-477.

  4. Rumball F, Brook L, Happé F, Karl A. Heightened risk of posttraumatic stress disorder in adults with autism spectrum disorder: The role of cumulative trauma and memory deficitsResearch in Developmental Disabilities. 2021;110:103848.

  5. AI Media. Sign Language Alphabets from Around the World.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.