One of the most common symptoms of autism is difficulty with speech and language. Autism spectrum disorder is, well, a spectrum, so these difficulties may look very different for each autistic child. Some can speak fluently, while others will always be nonverbal.
As a parent, you desperately want to communicate with your child—to understand their needs, wants, and emotions. This is harder when your child can’t speak out loud, but not impossible. There are a range of ways for autistic people to communicate non-vocally, including sign language.
What is sign language?
Sign language uses hand gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to express words and phrases. It’s the primary language for most Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, though plenty of hearing people use it, too.
Sign language isn’t the same everywhere—American Sign Language (ASL) is the standard in the United States and Canada, but different places have their own versions. For example, although hearing Brits and Americans both speak English, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are so different they’re not considered to be in the same language family!
Using sign language for autism
If your child with ASD struggles with speech, it’s important to access early intervention services. This will give them the best chance of achieving functional communication later on. That said, your speech therapist may decide that Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is the right option. Augmentative and Alternative Communication includes many different methods, from a picture exchange communication system (PEC), to flash cards, to sign language.
Sometimes, AAC is meant to help guide your child on their journey to speech. A 1979 study titled Teaching autistic children to use sign language: some research issues explored this topic. It found that a combination of sign language and ongoing speech therapy (called “simultaneous communication”) can stimulate language development in children with autism.
However, the study also found that completely nonverbal children weren’t likely to gain spoken words through simultaneous communication. Sign language could end up being your child’s primary or only way to communicate—and that’s okay! Nonverbal people with autism can still live happy, fulfilled lives.
Pros of sign language for children with autism
Signing has a number of benefits for autistic kids, besides the obvious one that they’ll be able to express themselves.
- More spontaneous communication: children will be more likely to communicate without prompting
- Better social skills: they may pay more attention to the social cues of others
- Less aggression and meltdowns: these behaviors are often caused by frustration at being unable to communicate
- Less depression and anxiety: likewise, kids with autism are likely to be happier when they can make themselves understood
- Less reliance on auditory processing: this skill is hard for many autistic children, so signing may be easier to understand
Cons of sign language for children with autism
Signing isn’t for everyone. Depending on your child’s strengths and weaknesses, these features could present problems:
- Extensive use of motor skills: signing involves careful use of hands and arms, but some children with autism struggle with motor skills
- Focus on facial expressions: ASL often uses facial expressions to convey more nuanced conversation. This could be hard for kids who have trouble interpreting faces
- Eye contact: many autistic people don’t enjoy prolonged eye contact, but this is a common part of ASL etiquette, especially when interacting with Deaf signers
- Stimming could distract others: Self-stimulatory behavior isn’t a bad thing, but if your child uses their hands to stim, it could confuse or distract a conversation partner
Types of sign language
American Sign Language is the United States’ most common form, but not the only one. There is also Signed Exact English (SEE).
American Sign Language
This method wasn’t created by a single person or organization; like spoken languages, it developed organically over centuries. Today, 250,000-500,000 people in the U.S. claim ASL as their native language.
It has its own grammar, vocabulary, and syntax that doesn’t always align with verbal English.
Signed Exact English
SEE, which was invented in 1972, bases many of its signs on ASL, but it’s more directly modeled on English. It follows English sentence structure and adds prefixes, endings, and tenses in order to be an exact visual representation of English.
Which should you use?
Many professionals recommend teaching SEE to children with autism, especially if the goal is to achieve verbal communication. That way, the child is still learning the rules of English even while using signs. Parents who have no experience with ASL may also find it easier to learn SEE. And because SEE replicates English words, it doesn’t rely as heavily on facial expressions to convey exact meaning.
However, many people find SEE clunkier and slower than ASL. There is also a much smaller community of adults who know SEE—people who are fluent in a sign language are most likely to know ASL, meaning that SEE is less useful for speaking with the broader world. If it looks like your child will be permanently nonverbal, ASL could be a better choice.
All children with autism are unique, so talk to your speech therapist about your options.
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Tips for learning sign language
If the child uses signs, that means the parents will have to learn, too! This may seem intimidating, but your speech therapist should guide you to resources. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Find the right teacher
You can learn how to sign through private tutors, online courses, or local classes. Ask your speech therapist for any recommendations, and find a way that works for your schedule and learning style.
Learn the finger alphabet
This is crucial when you first start using signs. ASL comes with its own alphabet, so if you forget certain signs, you can always spell them!
Learn vocabulary that’s important to your family
When prioritizing which signs to memorize, focus on things that you and your child with autism use most often.
Set specific goals
Give yourself daily, weekly, or monthly benchmarks to help you stay on track. For example, you might decide to learn three new signs every day.
Other alternative and augmentative communications
Today, there are countless AAC options for kids with autism. Other than sign language, you may consider…
- Picture exchange communication systems (PECs)
- Speech-generating devices
- Communication boards/books
- Facilitated communication
Every child is different, so no method is universally better than another. Some people with autism find signing effective and enjoyable, while others get more out of something else. Using different methods for different contexts is also possible. Consult with professionals and pay attention to your child’s reactions so you can make the best choice.
The journey to functional communication can be tough, but resources are out there. Research has shown that sign language may help children with autism develop speech. If not, it’s still a valid, useful tool for connecting with the people around them.
Brooks, R. (2018, May 10). A Guide to the Different Types of Sign Language Around the World. The Language Blog. https://www.k-international.com/blog/different-types-of-sign-language-around-the-world/
Carr E. G. (1979). Teaching autistic children to use sign language: some research issues. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 9(4), 345–359. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01531444
Edelson, S. M. (n.d.). SIGNED SPEECH OR SIMULTANEOUS COMMUNICATION. Synapse. http://www.autism-help.org/communication-sign-language-autism.htm
Lingvano. (n.d.). 15 tips for learning American Sign Language. Lingvano. https://www.lingvano.com/asl/blog/15-tips-for-learning-american-sign-language/
Miller, J. (2010, September 7). The difference between ASL and English signs. Signing Savvy. https://www.signingsavvy.com/blog/45/The+difference+between+ASL+and+English+signs
NIDCD. (2019, May 8). American Sign Language. National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/american-sign-language