Are you looking for activities to help teach nonverbal or nonspeaking autistic students in your classroom? If so, you are in the right place!
Let me tell you a little secret:
As a special educator I ALWAYS presumed competence in my students and I hope you do the same.
Want to know something interesting?
If you as the teacher think that a student cannot do something, then they most likely will not be able to.
However, when I approached all learning opportunities as just that-an opportunity for growth and learning, then that is what typically happened. It was pretty cool and eye opening.
Basically what I’m trying to say is don’t treat students who can’t verbally speak any differently than your other students. You may have to use some different types of resources to communicate but that is okay.
Understanding Nonverbal vs. Nonspeaking Autism
According to Autism Speaks, About 30% of the autism population is born not being able to use oral language to speak.
The term “nonverbal” can mean something different for each and every person. We actually used to use this term a lot when I was still teaching.
According to Merriam Webster, Nonverbal actually means “not involving or using words and lacking or appearing to lack the ability to engage in speech.
Nonspeaking is defined as not involving spoken lines and not speaking or being able to speak.
You must remember that students who we refer to as nonverbal can still understand and respond to language. This is why the term nonspeaking can be somewhat preferred because these children can still understand language and communicate in different ways.
Just because someone does not communicate language through speech doesn’t mean they cannot understand or cannot communicate ideas through words.
Many people still use these words interchangeably, I am simply just giving some facts that I have learned recently.
The Best Classroom Activities for Nonverbal or Nonspeaking Autistic Students:
As a former autism classroom teacher who had many nonverbal students, I absolutely get the struggle of figuring out what to teach. I had no district curriculum available for any part of my classroom, so I had to search or create it myself.
Want to know a little trick that I learned as an autism classroom teacher?
Make things the same for students Every. Single. Time.
Once I realized that when I created resources that followed the same pattern while teaching different skills, my students always knew what to do. This way, it didn’t matter if my student was completing an ELA or math work task, they knew EXACTLY what to do every time I put it in front of them because the directions did not change.
This was a HUGE game changer for my students in learning how to work independently on tasks.
Below, I want to leave you with some of my favorite resources that I used in my autism classroom that worked really well with students who were not able to speak but could communicate in other ways.
It’s all about creating an inclusive space where every kid can shine, right? So, let’s dive into some awesome classroom activities that I’ve found super effective.
The Power of Visual Supports
If you work with students with autism, you know the huge power of using visual supports.
For students that cannot communicate through oral language, visual supports are absolutely necessary.
Here are some of my favorite visual supports to use with nonverbal or nonspeaking learners:
“Visuals are the bridge that connects imagination to understanding, making complex ideas simple and turning dreams into reality.”
Reading Activities for Nonverbal or Nonspeaking Students:
⭐️ Picture Exchange System (PECS):
PECS is a fantastic tool that uses picture cards to help students communicate their desires and feelings. It’s also one of the best professional trainings I ever took.
But guess what?
It’s also incredible for teaching reading!
You can create PECS cards with simple words like “cat” or “dog” and gradually introduce more complex words to build the student’s vocabulary/ reading skills.
⭐️ Interactive Storytelling:
Pick a storybook and make it interactive! Use props, gestures and visual cues to help students engage with the story. Encourage them to point to pictures in the book or use AAC devices to express their thoughts about the story.
You can also use adapted books when reading. I liked to use CORE words to help teach about important subjects. These adapted books for teaching students about the community are some of my favorites.
⭐️ Sensory Reading:
Make reading a multisensory experience. Provide textured books or incorporate sensory elements into storytelling. Sensory reading can enhance comprehension by providing additional sensory input.
For instance, if you’re reading a story about the beach, bring in some sand to touch or seashells to explore while you read to help students better understand the story.
⭐️ Picture to Word Matching Activities:
Like I said above, using visuals is HUGE for working with students with autism, especially nonspeaking students. To access reading skills, I found that using lots of visuals and matching activities were extremely helpful to see if students were able to decode words. For this activity, they would have to decode the word and find the corresponding picture that matches the word at the bottom of the file folder.
Math Activities for Nonverbal or Nonspeaking Students:
⭐️ Counting with Visuals:
Numbers can be tricky, but visuals make math friendlier.
Use colorful counters, number lines, or even their favorite toys to help them understand counting and basic math concepts.
Use colorful building blocks or LEGO bricks. Ask the students to build towers or structures with a specific number of blocks, like “Build a tower with 5 blocks” or “Make a bridge using 3 blocks.”
This hands-on activity reinforces counting and basic math concepts such as addition and subtraction.
⭐️ Matching File Folders:
If you have students who can’t orally tell you the answer and maybe struggle with fine motor skills, completing some matching file folder activities like these counting file folders can be a great idea. I would use these an assessment tool to see where students were with their counting at the beginning of the year and throughout the year to collect data.
The only downfall to matching activities is that students can guess the answer and still get it correct. The big positive to using file folder activities like this is their ability to complete the work independently.
Writing Activities for Nonverbal or Nonspeaking Students:
⭐️ AAC Writing Apps:
There are some fantastic apps designed to support AAC users in developing writing skills. They can type or select words and sentences to create stories or communicate their thoughts in writing. AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication. Basically it just means another form of communicating besides verbally speaking.
When choosing an AAC app for writing, it’s essential to consider the individual needs and preferences of the user, as well as the level of support required. Many of these apps offer free trials or lite versions, allowing you to explore their features and determine which one best meets the specific needs of your students.
Here are some AAC Writing Apps you could try:
This comprehensive AAC app offers a text-based communication system with a wide range of customizable features. It allows users to construct sentences and paragraphs using symbols or text. Proloquo2Go also includes a robust vocabulary and grammar support.
TouchChat is a versatile AAC app that includes both symbol-based and text-based communication options. It provides word prediction and abbreviation-expansion features, making it easier for users to write sentences and messages efficiently.
➡️ Snap + Core First:
Created by Tobii Dynavox, this AAC app offers a versatile platform for communication, including text-based messages and writing support. It has a user-friendly interface and a wide range of vocabulary and symbol options.
➡️ LAMP Words for Life:
LAMP (Language Acquisition through Motor Planning) is an AAC app that emphasizes motor planning and language development. It can be adapted for writing by creating custom grids or using the built-in text-based communication feature.
While primarily designed for storytelling and social interaction, SpeakBook can also be used for writing activities. It enables users to create stories, captions, and sentences using text and symbols.
⭐️ Cut and Paste Writing Activities:
Cut and paste worksheets are particularly helpful for teaching the sequencing part of writing. I like to use these cut and sequence worksheets. Then, if students are able to-they can use the sequencing steps to create a short sentence or paragraph using the picture prompts, depending on their writing goals.
Social Skills Activities for Nonverbal or Nonspeaking Students:
⭐️ Visual Social Stories:
Use visual social stories that depict various social situations and appropriate responses. These stories can serve as a valuable resource for teaching social cues and expected behaviors.
A social story is usually written in first person (as if it’s from the student’s perspective). It is a simple narrative that answers questions about a problem that the student may encounter and how to deal with them. It helps autistic students understand social norms and learn how to communicate with others effectively.
For example, if a student hates loud noises and a fire drill is coming up that week-you may read them a social story about what will happen during the fire drill and what to do when the alarm goes off to ease their mind a bit.
Adapted 4 Special Ed has some great choices for social stories that you can find HERE.
⭐️ Group Games:
Engage students in group games or activities that require cooperation and interaction. Games like “Simon Says,” or board games such as Candy Land can be incredibly effective in promoting social skills and engagement such as following directions or turn-taking for students who are nonverbal.
While this visual was designed for students with autism, it can be beneficial for any struggling students. Even verbal students can have trouble retrieving the words or articulating what they need can benefit from using this.
Providing students with this simple file folder visual support can allow them to express their needs in a simple way by using pictures to help show what they need or how they are feeling in certain situations.
Best Activities for Nonverbal or Nonspeaking Autism
Remember, every nonverbal or nonspeaking student is unique, so it’s essential to tailor these activities to their specific needs and preferences. Stay flexible, be patient and celebrate every small step of progress along the way! I hope you found some of these ideas helpful! Please let me know below which ones you will try!