Sign Language and Autism
Verbal and nonverbal communication impairments are a core feature of autism. There is a steady interest in teaching sign language to autistic people who have limited speech or have failed to develop speech. Contrary to what many people thought in the past, people with autism who have limited or no language are capable of learning to communicate.
Over 30 years of research has shown that nonverbal people with autism can learn to communicate with sign language. Many autistic children respond well to sign language because it is visually based, which can be very helpful for those with auditory processing problems. Lots of parents and teachers are using sign language as a mode of quick communication particularly with children who have limited language capabilities.
How can sign language help people with autism?
Some of the advantages of using sign language include, it's inexpensive, portable, a true language system, and communication can take place quickly. Sing language can reduce negative behaviors such as tantrums, aggression or self injury which are often a result of being unable to communicate a want or need. Some research has shown that teaching sign language to students with autism has helped them become more verbal and may actually help nonverbal autistic people to become verbal. Furthermore, when children with autism have a form of communication they are more likely to interact with others socially. Sign language can also be used to cue a child during social situations or to give a caution or warning sign for potentially dangerous situations. Some parents report enjoying a closer bond with their children by opening up a door for communication. How autism affects each person is unique so the benefits of sign language will vary with each individual.
Are there drawbacks to teaching people with autism sign language?
Some have argued that introducing sign language could hinder verbal communication in children with autism. Research and anecdotal evidence has shown that in many cases sign language has actually helped children with autism become more verbal. However, there are some draw backs. Not everyone understands sign language; this can hinder social interaction and cause the autistic child to become isolated. In some cases children with severe cognitive disabilities or attention deficits may not be able to learn sign language.
How do you teach people with autism sign language?
Sign language relies on movements of hands, arms or body and facial expressions to communicate. To start choose words that are developmentally appropriate. It's best to start with only a few words. As words are mastered add more. Signs should directly relate to the autistic child's environment. It is helpful to use photographs of signs and place them directly on objects or use them as cues for activities. Also, demonstrate and hold the signs to allow time for the child to understand what is being communicated. A good way to begin teaching sign language can be physically guiding a person hand over hand. If you choose to use American Sign Language hang posters in the classroom and at home. Flash cards are a great way to reinforce and introduce signs. Try to arrange situations in the classroom or at home that open up opportunities for the child with autism to practice signing. Look for any opportunity that arises naturally and encourage the child to practice signing.
Remember that sign language and verbal communication can be taught simultaneously. This enforces that both sign language and spoken words can be used for communicating. Some believe that using signed words may help children with autism to become more verbal because of the direct correlation with signs and words. It is important that once you start signing that the form of communication is consistent. Sign language can be an incredible tool that can increase communication, independence, and academic achievement for the child with autism.
Using pictures to communicate is another form of communication that has been very helpful for children with autism who have limited speech capabilities. To learn more about it click here.
Autism and Sign Language References
Bonvillian, J., Nelson, K & Rhune, J (1981) Sign language and autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 11, 125-137
Carr, E. & Kologinsky, E. (1983). Acquisition of sign language by autistic children II: Spontaneity and generalized effects. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 16(3), 297-314.
Carr, E., Kologinsky, E. & Leff-Simon, S (1987) Acquisition of sign language by autistic children III: Generalized descriptive phrases. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17(2), 217-229.
Mirenda, P. (2003) Toward functional augmentative and alternative communication for students with autism: Sign Language, graphic symbols, and voice output communication aids. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 34, 203-216.
National Research Council (2001). Educating children with autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. Catherine Lord and James McGee (Eds). Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
Remington, B. & Clarke, S. (1983). Acquisition of expressive signing by autistic children: an evaluation of the relative effects of simultaneous communication and sign along training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 16 (3), 315-328.
Tincani, M (2004). Comparing the Picture Exchange communication System and sign language training for children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Studies, 9, 152-163.