Creating a voice for the Disability Sector
Creating a voice for the Disability Sector
Hireup support worker’s tips on communicating with children who may be non-verbal

Hireup support worker’s tips on communicating with children who may be non-verbal

15 March 2022

It can be daunting as a new carer or starting out as a support worker and not knowing how to communicate with your client who may be unable to speak or verbally communicate.

Our partners over at Hireup have released a terrific article on communicating with a child who may be non-verbal, or a child with speech and language support needs, written by Hireup support worker, Madeleine Saffery.

Madeleine writes that when she started her career as a Hireup support worker, she was excited to be working in the field of helping people, but she also harboured a few concerns.

These concerns included: What should I do when I work with who may be non-verbal, or a child with speech and language support needs? What if I can’t find things to do? What if I am making the child do a task they don’t want to do? What if the time on the shift goes slowly because I can’t make small talk or have conversations?

Her doubts and worries were quickly quashed once she started working with who may be non-verbal, or a child with speech and language support needs - she realised there were numerous communication channels that, often, are more telling than verbal messages – and there was more than one way to have a conversation.

Here are some tips she has shared with other support workers who, like her, weren’t sure how to approach working with a non-verbal client:

1. Collaborate with and observe those who are directly involved in your client’s life

In the early stages of working with a new client, it’s important to get to know their routine, strengths, limitations, and communication. Collaborating with clients, their family, carers, guardians, and health professionals can be beneficial in gaining an understanding of how best to communicate with your client.

If possible, being shadowed on a shift by carers can increase understanding and rapport with your client. This also helps the client and carer feel safe knowing that you’ve been trained by the people who know the client best.

A buddy shift with another support worker can also be useful in understanding how your client responds to different styles of communication and of how they communicate with someone other than their primary carer/guardian.

You can create a unique and meaningful relationship with your client by combining aspects of others’ interactions and adding your own flare.

2. Keyword, Auslan and custom communication

When you work with children who may be non-verbal, or a child with speech and language support needs, you become accustomed to gestures, keyword signs, Auslan and sometimes adjusted gestures dependent on physical, cognitive ability or motor dexterity.

For example, one of the clients I work with does not have the fine motor dexterity to key word sign “finished”, so his OT found an alternative sign that is more accessible to him.

It can be hard to remember all the signs of communication, so it can be useful to create either a list, board, or folder in collaboration with your clients informal and formal supports.

A couple of my clients use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices that help them speak using their eyes on a digital tablet. Attending my clients at their speech therapy appointments has helped me learn how to support them in using these devices and communicate in a different way.

3. Facial expressions and eye movement

As you can imagine, pausing and focussing on facial expressions and eye movement is critical in communication with children who are non-verbal.

That said, this can be useful when communicating with anyone.

Studies show that 55 percent of communication and meaning is produced through body language and only 7 percent through spoken word.

When working with children who may be non-verbal, or a child with speech and language support needs and have severe physical disability, who are unable to sign clearly, I rely heavily on their eye movement and lip movement. Often, children will move their eyes and focus on something, or give a big smile if they are receptive to an activity that brought them joy.

To enable choice and control, I will grab two items in each hand, for example, two shirts with different designs and ask, “would you like this shirt? or this shirt?” I then wait and focus on eye movement and pick the shirt that the child has either smiled at or paid most attention to with their eyes.

If I’m asking about an activity such as “would you like to go to the pool” or “go outside”, I use “visuals”, which are flash cards featuring pictures of the activities, and use the same asking technique as above.

However, these are not always easily accessible - especially for spontaneous outings or activities. In this case, I will use my hands to represent the different options, for example hand A will represent going to the pool and hand B would represent going outside.

Again, tracking the eye movement to ensure a clear choice is made by the child.

4. Patience

It’s important to take time and slow down from the fast-paced world.

To recognise that some children may need extra time to process information and formulate a non-verbal response. It can be just a few seconds, but it demonstrates respect and value for the response of the person you are communicating with.

So, if you’re a support worker on the Hireup platform looking to expand the types of supports you provide, I would highly recommend giving the non-verbal space a go.

You might be surprised, just as I was, and create a meaningful support relationship that not only benefits the client but is deeply rewarding for you as a support worker.

Our thanks to Hireup and Madeleine for this informative article, and for sharing these wonderful tips. We hope our readers find them useful too.


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