“You are a speech therapist. How can you help a child who does not speak?” When speech therapy is recommended for a non-verbal child, many people who are not familiar with the role of the speech-language pathologist (SLP), aka “speech therapist,” wonder why this recommendation was made.
In order to answer this question, it is important to understand that SLPs are communication specialists and that communication is not just verbal. Imagine the messages you send with just a look to your loved ones. Think about how you know what other people might be thinking or feeling, even if they don’t say anything. How often do you point or gesture throughout the day to communicate? Now imagine what it would feel like if you had none of these ways of communicating. Not only is your voice silenced and your mouth motionless, but you also can’t use your hands or your facial expressions to convey meaning to others. Try it. You might get a sense of the frustration that some of our non-verbal or low-verbal children experience.
As SLPs, specifically those trained in DIR/Floortime, we start with the most basic form of communication, which is back and forth emotional signaling with a trusted partner. This could be in the form of eye contact and smiling—a basic human connection. We then use techniques to help the child explore his sound system, as well as use his body and face to gesture. We help the child and his/her family communicate in continuous circles, even if not a word is spoken. When children achieve this level of communication and they still can’t talk, we can introduce alternative communication devices that will give them a voice while theirs continues to develop.
“Speech therapy” is crucial to the overall communication development of a non-verbal child. If any professional tells you that speech therapy can’t help, they are misinformed. If an SLP tells you that he/she can’t help your non-verbal child, thank them for their honesty and find one who can.