How to Communicate with Someone with Autism Who Doesn’t Speak

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — November 25, 2020 — 4 min read
One of the best ways to get to know someone with autism is to talk with them. But what do you do if you meet someone with autism who can’t speak?

Each person with autism thinks, behaves, and communicates in their own unique way. For some, communicating does not equal talking. When someone with autism does not or cannot speak at all using oral language, they might be considered nonverbal. This is more common than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40% of people with autism do not talk at all.

Why Can’t Some with Autism Speak?

Some with autism can say everything perfectly in their head but can’t verbalize it. That’s called apraxia of speech. Others may not be able to process and produce language in a typical way. In some cases, they may repeat phrases or sounds that they’ve heard over and over (making it hard to form sentences). Some people start talking less or stop talking altogether when they’re stressed.

However, many with autism who can’t speak can understand what others say. They can talk with friends and family in other ways.

Learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorder.

How Can I Talk with Someone Who has Autism but Doesn’t Speak?

It all depends on the person. As we said before, everyone with autism is different. Here are some of the most common ways someone with nonverbal autism can let you know what they’re thinking:

American Sign Language

Some people with autism might use American Sign Language (ASL) to speak with others. ASL is a nonverbal way of talking by using one’s body, facial expressions, and hand movements. To be able to speak with someone via ASL, you must know ASL yourself or have an ASL interpreter with you. Some people who can’t speak may also have their own unique vocabulary, or “home signs” that they use to communicate about things or ideas that are important to them.

Picture Cards

Some people have trouble with ASL or just prefer something different. Instead, they can use picture cards to string together sentences. These cards have images of objects and actions. To understand someone using picture cards, it’s important to use context clues. Picture cards won’t create sentences the same way talking would.

Writing, Typing, or Using Digital Tools

This is the most straightforward method someone with autism could use to communicate. They can either write or type what they want to say, and you would read it afterward. There are also digital tools (much like virtual picture cards and apps) that can help someone with autism speak with you.


This is a bit trickier. Some people with autism have trouble producing language in any form. Instead, they might act a certain way to explain what they need or want. They may clap, flap their arms, nod, smile, or move their face or body in another way. They may behave in some way that is associated with the activity they’d like to do.

For instance, they may put on dress shoes to say, “I want to go to church” or pack a bag with flip flops to say, “I’m ready to go to the beach.” A very common behavior is to take your hand or arm and take you to something that they want.

Making Sounds

Just because someone doesn’t use spoken words doesn’t mean they are silent. Many people with autism make different types of sounds. It may take time hanging out with your new friend to figure out what they are trying to tell you.

Sometimes they may be expressing a feeling or mood such as happiness, excitement, anxiety or frustration. Sometimes they may be expressing that they agree or don’t agree with something. Sometimes making sounds is a way for them to sooth themselves.

To understand what they are saying, pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and what is going on around you. Those who know your new friend well can be great translators!

There’s a learning curve for new friends and acquaintances. It may take some time to understand what your new pal has to say—but you’ll pick up on his or her cues!

Don’t Back Down from Differences

Sometimes it can feel new or uncomfortable to talk to someone who speaks or sounds differently from you. However, if you never talk to someone different than yourself, you’ll never grow—never change! Getting to know someone with autism can help you learn what it’s like to have it.

Next time you meet someone with autism, consider smiling and waving, “Hello.” You never know what stories they have to share.
Was this article helpful?

Join our member newsletter