Assistive Technology for Non-Verbal Special Ed Children

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Non-verbal children lack the ability to speak, or have limited ability to use language in a “normal” way. This disability may be due to a physical abnormality or birth defect such as cleft palate, or a developmental delay like autism. Non-verbal children may possess receptive language abilities – meaning they can understand spoken language – but they lack expressive language skills, or the ability to speak.

Children who are non-verbal are often within the autism spectrum and qualify for special education services. Among these special services are speech and language therapy. Communication is key to a child’s success in school; therefore, accommodations must be available to improve a non-verbal child’s opportunity to succeed.

IDEA and NCLB on Special Education

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), all children have the right to a free appropriate public education (also known as FAPE). In the case of children receiving special education services, IDEA and NCLB require that these children receive appropriate accommodations to remove any barriers to learning. Children who are non-verbal, for instance, need some form of assistive technology to enable them to communicate; in essence, to give a voice to those who have no voice.

Assistive Technology for Non-Verbal Children

One type of assistive technology that best suits non-verbal children includes augmentative alternative communication (AAC) devices or systems. Since communication is vital for success both in school as well as later in life, such assistive technology options are key considerations. Among these options, ranging from low- to high-tech AAC devices or systems, are the following:

  • PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System: pictorial representations of actual objects and actions are one of the easiest and most direct forms of assistive technology to initiate and facilitate communication for non-verbal children. Whether used as individual picture cards, or incorporated into a game, authentic PECS or a similar type of pictorial system operate on the principle of the child recognizing what the picture card represents, exchanging it with a communication partner (teacher or other professional, or parent), and receiving the object or action in exchange.

  • VOCAs-Voice Output Communication Aids: incorporate some form of pictorial representation on the keys of the hand-held devices – each key contains a pre-recorded message that “speaks” the name of the object or action.

  • Type-to-Talk devices: similar to VOCAs, these are usually appropriate for older children who are able to type on a traditional keyboard; as a child types, the device “speaks” for him.

  • Adaptive computers and keyboards: standard computers (desktops or laptops) and keyboards adapted with special software, touch-screen monitors, and keyboards with pictorial overlays that allow the non-verbal child to communicate and interact with others.

Special Note

Children who are non-verbal are different from children with non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD or NLD). As noted previously in this article, children who are non-verbal lack the ability to communicate in a normal fashion with spoken language. In contrast, children with NLD often develop speech and language early, and possess exceptional reading and spelling skills. NLD manifests instead in a child’s inability to distinguish non-verbal cues, such as facial gestures and social skills. NLD also affects a child’s motor coordination as well as visual-spatial perception.