when is a child considered nonverbal

When is a Child Considered Nonverbal?

Posted on
September 29, 2023
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A child is considered nonverbal when she or she does not use speech to communicate. This can be either voluntary, when a child does not talk, or involuntary, when a child cannot talk.

What age is a child considered non verbal?

It is important to remember that children develop language at a different pace, and that even if your child is falling behind on their "speech milestones", it is highly probable that their speech will progress with time. However, while delayed speech may only be a stage for some children, it could be an indication of a bigger problems for others.

Generally speaking, if a child does not begin to produce speech by the age of 4, they are considered as being non-verbal.

Can a 2 year old be nonverbal?

While a 2 year old child can be non-verbal, it is usually too early for professionals to accurately diagnose them as such, unless there is a severe disorder that can be reliably diagnosed (e.g. Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and severe ASD).

How do I know if my 2 year old is nonverbal?

While it is usually too early to know if a 2 year old child is non-verbal, there are some rough guidelines with which you can measure your child's language development:

  • 4-6 months: repetition of single syllables (e.g. dadada)
  • 8-9 months: repetition of two syllables that differ from one another (e.g. gadagada)
  • 9-18 months: saying their first word; by 12 months they use 2-6 words
  • 18-24 months: using around 50-100 words; using more than one word in combination with another (e.g. more sweets);

Aside from these milestones, here are some risk factors which you can look out for that might indicate a language delay:

  • limited vocabulary use (mostly nouns and few verbs)
  • no imitation of words or sounds
  • limited use of consonants
  • use of gestures and pointing instead of talking
  • frequent ear infections
  • a family history of language delays or disorders


We use speech to communicate with others, which is why non-verbal children are often at-risk of developing communication problems in the future. However, speech is not the only means of expression. In fact, recent studies have found that 93% of what we communicate to others is not through speech, but rather through non-verbal forms of communication, such as posture, facial expressions, eye gaze, and proxemics. Therefore, it is important to recognise that just because a child is non-verbal, it does not mean that they cannot communicate effectively.

While it is still important to speak to a non-verbal child, it is essential to offer them an alternative form of communication through which they can express themselves. There are many different types, and each child is different in which they prefer:

  • low technology: picture exchange systems (using pictures to communicate your needs), notebooks, boards, communication charts, etc.
  • medium technology: typewriters, electronic scanners
  • high technology: electronic or battery operated devices (e.g. an iPad app, augmentation devices, computers)

However, such forms of communication are sometimes out of reach or impractical (e.g. during bath time). In such cases, it is important for the caregiver to truly know the child and their ways of expressing themselves through body language (e.g. facial expressions), as well as teaching them sign language, which is one of the most effective non-verbal communication tools that non-verbal children can use.

Can a child be non verbal and not be autistic?

People often equate non-verbal children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While it is true that children with ASD can be non-verbal, that is not always the case. There are numerous other reasons why a child might not talk, including:

  • intellectual disability
  • speech and language disorders (e.g. phonologic disorder, developmental language disorder (DPD), childhood speech apraxia)
  • non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD)
  • sensory processing disorder (SPD)
  • selective mutism
  • hearing problems
  • brain injuries (e.g. aphasia)
  • cerebral palsy
  • progressive neurological disease (e.g. ALS)

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Herndon, J. R. (March 18, 2021) Tips for Communicating With Your Nonverbal Child: Techniques to Try With Nonverbal or Pre-Verbal Children. Verywell Family. https://www.verywellfamily.com/communicating-with-a-nonverbal-child-4177579

Herschensohn, J. (2007) Language Development and Age. Cambridge University Press.

Lichtsinn, J. (2019) No Words (Yet): The Rights of Emerging/Pre-Verbal Toddlers and Nonverbal Children to Participate in Their Own Care and Learning [Doctoral Thesis, The University of Arizona]. The University of Arizona ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Lowry, L. (n.d.) How to Tell if Your Child is a Late Talker — And What to Do About It. The Hanen Centre. https://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/how-to-tell-if-your-child-is-a-late-talker-–-and-w.aspx

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Rudy, L. J. (August 21, 2023) Signs Your Toddler Isn't Autistic (and How to Tell): A developmental delay sin't always the same as autism in toddlers. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/red-flags-that-dont-indicate-autism-259898

Steiner, N. (2018) Selective Mutism. In M. Augustyn and B. Zuckerman (Eds.) Zuckerman Parker Handbook of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics for Primary Care. Wolters Kluwer.

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