If your child is non-verbal, should you give her everything she asks for?

The challenge between giving your non-verbal child what she wants, when she wants it, and teaching her that she can’t have everything when she wants it can be stressful.

Parents often feel that they need to give their non-verbal child everything their child requests, because the child many not ask for things often. There is some truth to this; however, you don’t need to ALWAYS give in.

When your child is first learning language, you should fulfill her requests. She is starting to understand the intent of communication, which is to get one’s needs met by talking, pointing, writing, or using symbols. This is an emotional process, because your child may be saying words for the first time. Or, perhaps she is using a communication device or pointing for the first time. Whichever method of communication she is using, it can be hard to not fulfill her requests on-demand.

There are times when it is just not feasible to give your child what she is asking for; it would be a disservice to not teach her how to handle this type of situation. For example, if she learns that saying “ice-cream” gets her a delicious scoop of chocolate, she may say, “ice-cream” in the middle of the night to get her favorite dessert. Should you run downstairs to your freezer, or worse run to the convenient store that is open 24/7? No way!

Here’s what you should do instead. Smile, because your child is communicating her requests! Recognize what she wants by affirming it with your words. Say, “You want ice-cream? I understand you want ice-cream. But right now, it’s bedtime. You can have ice-cream tomorrow.”

So, repeat her request. Tell her that she can’t have it. Tell her what she can have instead. And then, if it’s a real possibility, tell her when she can have what she requested.

You can also use first, then statements. You can say what she has to do first, and then she can have her request. For example, “First do your homework, then you can ride your bike.”

You can also show her a visual schedule so she can see when she is allowed to have the requested item. Point to the item that she is requesting on her schedule, and then show her what she has to do before she gets that activity.

Of course, there are times when she is never going to get what she is asking for. This can be heartbreaking to witness if she is very upset over it. All children make requests from time to time for things that they are not allowed to have. But, when your child who is non-verbal or has limited language asks for something, it tears a little more at your heartstrings. You are not alone.

If she really can’t get what she is asking for in the near future, like a sweet little puppy, or a trip to Disney World, you need to take a deep breath. Gather all of your strength, and provide her with two realistic choices. Say something like, “Sally, I know you want a new puppy. I am sorry, but we can’t get a new puppy right now. You can have your Legos or you can play with your magnets.”

The most important point to remember when your child is struggling with language and communication is that she most likely feels like you and the world are not understanding her. One of the reasons she has meltdowns is because there is a breakdown in communication. However, if you repeat the request and affirm that you understand what she is asking, life is going to feel a lot less stressful for both of you.

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Jennifer Lingle, M.Ed.

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