Teaching Signing to Autistic Children

Using sign language

Teaching signing to autistic children can help nonverbal children communicate. Sign language offers a way for nonverbal children to express themselves and communicate with others. It may be a good option for children with autism who need a nonverbal language for long-term communication or as a transition to verbal speech.

About Sign Language and Autism

Speech-language therapists sometimes use sign language as an alternative to speech for nonverbal children with autism. The practice of signing is effective for autism because it is visual and many children quickly adapt to the language.

A 1981 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders study found that signing was an effective way for children with autism to communicate. The majority of the 100 study participants learned signs for expressive and responsive language as well as how to combine signs. The sign language also helped children improve in adaptive behavior. Some of the nonverbal participants learned verbal speech through signing and hearing spoken words simultaneously.

Therapist use signing methods such as the American Sign Language (ASL) or a technique called, Signing Exact English (SEE), for teaching children with autism.

Signing Exact English

Signing Exact English, also called Signed Exact English, is one of the emerging methods for teaching children with autism to encourage both speech and reading. SEE uses many of the standard signs of the ASL but expands the words to more closely match speech in the English language than other signing methods. Signing Exact English also stands apart from other signing techniques because it uses endings and prefixes for words.

While SEE has been around since 1972, it is not as widely accepted as ASL because many experts feel it is not as user-friendly as ASL for the deaf or for children with developmental disabilities such as autism. To learn more about SEE, visit the SEE Center site.

Benefits of Teaching Signing to Autistic Children

Teaching signing to autistic children can teach language as well as improve communication and social skills. Learning signing can provide the following benefits to children with autism:

  • Provide a way to communicate without verbal speech
  • Allow children to communicate feelings, needs or ideas
  • Lessens negative behavior, such as tantrums or biting, that may be triggered by frustration over miscommunication
  • Builds cognitive skills that assist speech development
  • Stimulates verbal speech and language development in some children
  • Increases social interaction because signing provides a way to connect with others

Sign Language Versus Other Nonverbal Communication

Determining whether or not signing is better than other nonverbal communication methods depends upon the child, his level of impairment and how he prefers to learn. In general, children with autism of all different levels of impairment can do well with either sign language or visual communication techniques such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Children who are learning to speak verbally may find signing a helpful transition to verbal speech. Some children with more severe cases of autism may prefer PECS to signing because of the visual aids.

Signing requires detailed focus on hand gestures, which may be a problem in autistic children with additional attention deficit problems. Parents should seek the advice of a licensed speech-language therapist to help figure out which nonverbal language works best for their child. To find a local licensed speech-language therapist, visit the American Speech Language Hearing Association site.

Consider Giving Signing a Try

Signing is one of the nonverbal language methods that can help children with autism communicate and build crucial speech skills. Parents should consider it for autistic children who have not developed speech because of its many potential benefits. It may not work for every child with autism because each person learns differently.

Working with a speech-language therapist can help parents figure out is signing is right for their child. Parents who work closely with their nonverbal child on developing speech and language will have the best results because every interaction builds the child's communication and social skills.

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Teaching Signing to Autistic Children