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Sign Language for Autistic Children

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Most autistic individuals struggle with language and communication skills. While some nonverbal children eventually learn to make a few sounds, autism specialists at the Yale School of Medicine estimate that as many as 40% to 50% of all autistic children cannot speak. This huge number of nonverbal children has resulted in most autism experts and parents giving a high priority to language skills for early intervention.

Sign language and other alternative communication methods hold the potential to ignite a nonverbal child’s power to talk. It doesn’t prevent speaking, as experts once believed, because it activates the same portion of the brain that talking does. However, even with visual-based methods, visual thinkers can remain mute. The goal of sign language for autistic children is not to force them to talk, but to offer a pathway to better communication.

What is Sign Language for Children with Autism?

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual-based language composed of “signs" made with the hands. Created to give deaf individuals and those hard of hearing a way to communicate, the syntax and grammar differs from verbal English. American Sign Language uses body language, facial gestures, and expressions. It also consists of spelling out alphabetically many technical words, proper names, and phrases. Not originally designed for individuals with developmental or sensory problems, traditional sign language is conceptual and complex.

A simple sign language for children with autism and other developmental or cognitive impairments uses key words and concepts taken from American Sign Language, but it follows spoken language more closely. It also encourages teachers and parents to speak the word or concept at exactly the same time as signing. This type of teaching called signed speech doubles the stimulation to the talking portion of the brain.

The Exact English method, a simple sign language used most often for children with autism, draws upon the same syntax as the English language making it easier for children to learn. For example, it teaches a child to sign the phrase “pet the dog" exactly as spoken, rather than using the ASL form of “dog pet." Since this method uses the first letter of each word followed by a hand movement that hints at what the word means, those who speak languages other than English can easily adapt the syntax to match their own language.

Autism Sign Language Benefits and Difficulties

Sign language is not as popular for helping autistic children as it used to be; but that’s not because today’s picture systems and computerized methods of communication are better. Most arguments against using sign language point out the difficulties extending beyond the autistic child’s immediate environment. If people don’t understand sign language, communicating with neighbors, store clerks, educators, and therapists will continue to be a deficit. In addition, everyone in the family – not just the autistic child – must learn sign language in order to communicate with the child.

For some autistic children, even simple sign language is difficult. They can learn a few signs that help them meet their basic needs, but struggle to communicate their feelings, thoughts, and desires. The reasons vary and can come from motor problems, sensory issues, or stress. For that reason, sign language works better for some autistic children than for others. While there are those who do not understand speech, many nonverbal children have no problem hearing or understanding. In addition, some children may know the difference between a car and a ball, but might only be able to say one word or the other. A wrong answer, repeating a particular word, or being mute doesn’t mean an autistic child doesn’t understand; nor does it mean that the child doesn’t know the right answer.

Signs work well for children who understand language but have problems speaking. They work well for visual thinkers, those who understand the world through hand and body movements, and those who don’t have tactile defensiveness. While unpopular among autism experts who prefer picture-based language programs, many autistic children prefer using sign language to pictures. It’s convenient, they don’t have to drag pictures and books around with them, and they find it easier to learn.

An inability to communicate creates frustration, irritability, and often depression that can surface as inappropriate behaviors. Reduce the stress, and many parents find that behavior problems lessen. Learning sign language can lead to better eye contact, higher levels of social initiation and interaction, and even vocalization. Since both speech and signing utilize the same portion of the brain, often the process of learning and using simple sign language will trigger the physical ability to speak.

Introduce Simple Sign Language Slowly

The best sign language methods use Exact English, the Makaton model, or an American Sign Language program specifically designed to teach babies. Parents can find these models in books and websites like the American Sign Language University, where they can learn each sign. To avoid frustrating the child, however, parents should keep interaction simple. Start slowly by picking out three or four words that will introduce objects. Eliminate unnecessary information and stick to just those words. Say each word vocally and show the child the sign at the same time.

For example, to teach a child how to sign for a glass of water, first say the word “water," show the child a glass of water, and then show him the sign for water. This is done before giving him the glass, again while he’s drinking, and once more afterwards for additional reinforcement. Don’t try to hold a conversation or use more words than necessary; just focus on the single word being taught at that moment.

Whether they are visual or audible thinkers, autistic children process language literally. Sign language works the same way. To help children with autism understand certain words and concepts, parents may need to demonstrate movements like “up," “down," “sit," “eat," or “drink," and then have the child perform the movement. Sometimes, this may require hand-over-hand teaching.

Once the child has learned the words and has become more comfortable with the learning process, parents can move on to add additional words and concepts. In addition, they can begin making comments during the teaching session about what the child is doing, hearing, seeing, and feeling.

While teaching sign language carries a high possibility that the child will soon begin to speak, the goal is to strive for improved communication between family and child. Perfecting each sign is not necessary. If the child has too much trouble remembering how to sign a particular word or action, many parents of autistic children adapt the sign to make it easier for the child to remember, or even create their own signs. When parents introduce simple sign language slowly and patiently, both autistic child and parent can reap the benefits of improved communication.

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