Signing Autistic Lives – Podcast 9

Sign Language as a form of communication for Autistic children is discussed in this interview with Candice Chaktoura.

Leslie: Thank you for joining us today I’m Leslie Burby, Editor of Autism Parenting Magazine and today we are here with Candice Chaktoura, she is the creator of Signing Autistic Lives. Thank you for joining us today, Candice.

Candice: Thank you for having me here Leslie, nice to see you.

Leslie: Can you tell us how you got started and what started your interest in helping autistic people learn how to sign as a way of communication?

Candice: Several years ago I learned a friend of ours had a son with autism.  At the time our friend’s son (Alex) was 7 years old and considered nonverbal.  It was during one of our conversations with the parents when I inquired to see if they have ever considered sign language to help with communication challenges.

They said when their son was 2 years old, five years earlier, they mentioned signed language to his speech therapist.  Her response was “but don’t you want your child to talk.” The parents brushed off the idea and continued on the same course of therapy.  Five years later he was still considered to be nonverbal, only having a few words.

My own introduction to sign language was due to the fact that my 19-year-old daughter was beginning her fourth year in sign language at the local university. Her interests in special needs children extended to various volunteer organizations in Horse Therapy. In any situation, the ease of incorporating 1 or 2 signs to convey a message was beneficial.

Danielle offered to spend time with Alex and the family and introduce a few signs to see if it would help with communication. The inability to interact in a two-way exchange of information created significant difficulties for the entire family.  Both parents were quite receptive to the offer. Danielle and I met with the family on a playground.  Alex learned the signs: please, more, push and my name of course, Candy. The immediate realization was the fact that a few signs empowered Alex with the ability to make requests requiring us to respond. We began by slowly introducing signs based on his wants and needs, those having greater emotional attachment.

Leslie: And just to clarify Danielle is your daughter?

Candice: Yes my daughter, my apologies. Danielle knew sign language helped for children with special needs it worked quickly and with very minimal signing. In most cases one or two signs were enough. It wasn’t like the children already knew the signs. The combination of speech and the sign provided clarity in the message.

Even with difficulties of manual dexterity and limited ability to focus, Alex learned signs by approximation and his focusing improved as a result of learning because he could have his needs met. The journey of helping Alex and the family was full of surprises for all of us.  We did not expect to hear him attempt vocals, which eventually did lead to words/speech.
Leslie: I personally had a good experience with signing as well with my nonverbal son.  When we began signing with him, language followed. The signs we used more frequently were the signs he began to verbally say.  When I suggested to my son’s therapist about using sign language it was received with the same apprehension. I understand that the old school of thought is if you teach them to sign language, you will delay their verbal skills because their needs are being met so they won’t have a reason to speak. However, thankfully, lately, the research has shown and proven that sign language facilitates the progression of language and I’ve been reading studies about it later about how the people that have a verbal delay, that signing actually is very helpful.

Candice:  I completely understand each of the therapy’s providing service to children with autism come from a specific background and specialty.  What we were working on was a way to take something which was proven over several decades to be of benefit and work a little more diligently to get “out of the box” in helping a community.

Parents and teachers were struggling with the same issues and concerns.  They were trying to find out what types of support programs are available, and who has the information.  As you were talking to your son, you started doing a few baby signs but yet there really wasn’t something concrete where you could go to and say, “This is I want to do, can you give me some information on it,” because at the moment you’re being exposed to what people know and that’s kind of a mismatch of information. This was only one of the issues that we had to approach.

Leslie: So, basically there are no certain requirements or skills the child does need to be successful with Signing Autistic Lives, right? Can you give us a sample of how Signing Autistic Lives works?

Candice: The kids don’t need any experience, they really don’t need any skills, nor do the parents. When we first started working with families many of them seem to already have the idea that signing helped with communication. However, it was the next step which proved to be the stumbling block. We needed to learn how to best meet the needs of parents, teachers, and children from the standpoint of their lifestyle. “What is unique to the family and child?” “What do they do?” “Where do they go?” “Who are the people in their lives?” and “What are the activities they do with them?”

So what we began to work towards was to see how we could put together something short and condensed to get them going, like, with you, you went to baby signing. So how many signs are there and how do they use them? Baby signing gave you a few dozen signs to use.  The transition to the next step is what was missing. Families introduced to baby signing loved it and realized that [the signs] “more,”  “hug,” “grandma,” “grandpa,” even though quite basic, allowed a greater number of family members to become involved in two-way interactions. The greater the signing, the greater the interactions, naturally provide greater exposure to hearing and speech. The goal is to get the child connected to others around them where you can see in the community; children with autism tend to be put onto the side because nobody really understands what to do. By providing just a few signs even 5 to 15 signs to dad, mom, and grandma, we are increasing opportunities for greater interactions. The exposure and interactions increase the probability of children to begin making sounds leading to speech.

We developed a strategy to help parents, educators and therapists proceed and learn based on their current needs.  Whether you want to learn how to overcome objections currently being expressed (friends, family, educators, medical community) basically all of which are misconceptions, or looking to jump in and begin with workshops teaching a quick short cut signing for special needs, both are readily available. The third and most inclusive is our 12-week in-class, hands-on team approach, five-phase program, assessments, goals, objectives, strategies, and final evaluation.

We also have a series of powerpoints which can be requested by email (no charge) at  Each powerpoint covers various topics ranging from a simple overview of signing with and to ASD children, another specifically addresses in detail the misconceptions and obstacles parents face concerning beginning any type of program, a comparison of signing and PEC’s, and the last is a detailed list of the benefits of American Sign Language. Benefits include cognitive, social, emotional, speech, language, writing and reading.

The purpose of the powerpoints it to take you to the next level so you can say, “Okay I’m ready to start something.” “I’ve tried to find resources and they are confusing.” We knew that it worked as we started working with families, we knew it had to be unique to your child and the life your child leads and creating a sign language program based on the minimum needed. The powerpoints are yours to learn and are free, the next step would be workshops. So we tried to create a workshop just for a few hours that when you walk out you feel like “I can handle this, it’s not what I thought.”

Leslie: Does a person have to attend a workshop in order to be successful or in order to use the Signing Autistic Lives products?

Candice: No, they don’t. However, we have found that the workshops provide additional support for everyone. Workshops include flashcards, suggested categories, creating templates for word lists/signs and lots of short cuts for faster learning.  One of the things that we found with our community was the mixed amount of resources between books and flashcards.  We developed a specific kind of flashcard that is unique for children with autism and the adults and peers who support them.  The first series of the flashcard for you to refer are the flashcards that we developed, there called Life Flow because it has to do with how you live your life and the things that you do from morning until night, instead of learning what do you see at the zoo, for family and friends.  The first of the flashcards that we have on our website is called the breakfast set, in that set what we have, it’s a fifteen-page guide and it’s by bullets. This kind of simplistic way of learning so it’s not paragraph by paragraph but they’re bullets, it’s only fifteen pages and it lays a foundation that will assist you if you have a workshop.

The workshop does bring everyone together on the same page and in a few hours, they put together the idea of “Okay we got it, we know how it works, let’s put a plan in place into what’s the next step.” The workshop covers the information in the 15-page guide but with greater depth. The flashcards are unique to how you live and go through the day. The front of the card is simple and clean, minimal colors to reduce visual complexity, the back has more information for adult learning.

Sign language is the only means of alternative communication for a child with special needs or Autism that provides genuine communication and we talk about signing as a concept, that’s all you need. If I made this sign [signs drink] would you know what it was? It’s like playing charades. You and I are not interpreters. We just need signs to ask our child, “Do you want milk or juice?” The signs that are important are milk and juice. We wanted to make it easy for everyone. One to two signs for whatever you need to communicate with your child all day long and that is the beauty of it. It sounds like a slow process but everything that we created in Signing Autistic Lives was to accommodate creating a plan for your child and you, the teacher, grandma, giving you help for resources, next step, and the other important part is to be able to respond to the people, the community, who like the speech therapist said, “Don’t you want your child to talk?” The more we get the child to feel comfortable in the environment, interacting in school, in class, at home and were talking maybe a few signs a day. The more that child connects with the community, the more audio practice he has, the more his audio receptors kick in, it all works together for processing with all the children with the exception of those few children that never speak for other reasons. Children do become empowered and that’s a cool thing because they realize they have the power to make requests, to make choices, and that their opinion matters. That’s the answer to your question, you don’t need a workshop however the workshops allow a team to get together and to be on the same page and that just makes things work faster.

Leslie: I can see how that would be very helpful and I did start signing with my son, just using a few signs, and like you said I just used Baby Signs because that’s what I had on hand and I got too frustrated one day so I figured well it can’t hurt to try the signs, “If it doesn’t work, It doesn’t work” but after 2 days of signing, just using the two signs “more” and “all done,” he learned that if he signed “all done” he could get out of his high chair which he hates so it was a big motivator. He hates to sit still very long so he was eager to learn that. The sign “more,” he learned when it came to sweets.  “I can get more candy, I can get more cookies?!” We made sure that is was a positive experience, it’s more fun and he would benefit from it so he wanted to learn and within a matter of a week, he was saying the words that he had signed. So it’s very amazing to me because I had them…

Candice: …and he drops a sign when he’s ready to speak because they know they no longer need it.  When you break down the signs needed in each category in the classroom, it is really probably a 150 to 200 signs for a teacher. The intention of signing in the classroom is not to add another instruction period. Instead, signing assists natural conversation during the day and begins with introducing a few signs daily.  Evidence proves beyond a doubt that sign language improves cognitive development, language, reading and writing for children with and without disabilities. From kindergarteners to children in the first and second grade they pick up on signing so quickly it’s phenomenal. They use it as a secret language so what happens is when you get special needs children and children without special needs together in an environment, they communicate in a beautiful way and that communication connects those kids in a way that allows all the children to develop.

Whatever you come across in the community, whatever you see in the library, if there’s a question about a book, there’s a question about the sign or somebody asked you something and you really don’t know how to respond or if there’s some special sign of something you don’t know (like the sign for Cheerio’s); I am available anytime via email because it is important for you to know that you have me as a resource. This program is totally unique from anything that’s been out there because I have to transition families over the hump of fears and misconceptions and then I’ve got to show you how it creates communication in a dribble effect and to hold your hand so that child’s entire world is sharing and through time in a couple of weeks, everybody deserves a chance and it’s tremendous.

Leslie: I do like your approach because it’s more hands-on, I don’t have a lot of time, I just need to learn what I need and that’s it. With transitioning from baby signs to ASL it is extremely overwhelming even using the children’s television show that teaches signing (Signing Time) and it’s a great show but for me it’s too much information for my son, he doesn’t need to know all of those signs, we may only use two of the signs out of each episode, I found the way that you broke down, the packages into the series  was more practical, those were the signs I need, that’s what I need to know, that’s what I need to focus on and we can move from there. It was a whole bunch of, “Oh my goodness, I’m only going to use a third of this, why am I wasting my time?” With Signing Autistic Lives it was what I needed; it was fast, simple to understand so I really liked your approach. What are some of the feedback you heard from your costumers?

Candice: They are rather surprised, the first comment is usually, “I’ve never seen anything like this on the market before, and the other is, “If this is so beneficial then why aren’t more people using it?” The feedback has been phenomenal but the apprehension with most people is that just as I said this is a new approach to sign language.

We found there’s a huge community around the world and they are all facing the same things. We interact with France, the UK, Australia, Africa and even though the signs maybe different, we found they are all looking for the same thing, a way to use sign language to shortcut the system so that we can help children to interact and overcome any of the fears that people have when they see a child and they don’t understand the behaviors.

Leslie: I just had a person tell me that they had no idea about what was behind the word autism, or about all it entailed. They had never even heard of sensory issues before which surprised me for a second but then I remembered back and realized I didn’t either back then.

Candice: I do want to put a note in about your new children’s book and I was reading some comments on Google plus about it.  You wrote how your daughter took you literally about throwing out her ice cream at the restaurant. I got a good laugh out of it, but the response from onlookers was saddening. I also noticed you have an issue on grandparents, an article that I sent out to every person I knew who had grandparents. Grandparents don’t understand.  Education and awareness have helped me with patience and understanding in so many wonderful ways.

Leslie: I hear you, I was a special education tutor and I thought I knew what I was talking about and you could deal but really, I knew nothing until I had my own children with their own special needs, they taught me so much and I really want everybody to understand that if we just all come together we could all learn a great deal from each other.

Anyway, getting back on track, can you tell us about the variety of the different products you have, I like that you don‘t have to buy every package so it’s not this huge expense for families because I know this personally but for many families that have children with special needs, financially we have to pay for a lot of different medical bills or therapeutic expenses, so I am always looking for affordable solutions that can help our children.  So I like the fact that you could just buy what you needed. Can you explain that?

Candice: The powerpoints are always available for free by email. They will help to lay a foundation for feeling comfortable to take the next step and attend a workshop.  Usually, the workshop will be in groups (a minimum of 30 to 40 people.) Participants receive 60 flashcards in the workshop so there’s additional support there. Cards can be purchased without attending a workshop online by download or hardcopy purchase. The download is immediate.  You get it on your computer and send it to whomever you want (the people in the child’s world).

Leslie: Great and they can all be purchased at, correct?

Candice: Yes, it’s really important for any of the viewers and readers to know they have a source for questions.

Leslie: Alright, well I thank you so much for joining us today and for all this information. Thank you. For all of our viewers, if you would like one free copy of Autism Parenting Magazine, all you need to do is go to and enter your email and you will get a free digital issue because we are digital magazine and also please feel free to like us on Facebook and on twitter our handle is @AutismParentMag. I’m Leslie Burby, have a great day.

Leslie Burby

Leslie Burby

Leslie Burby is the former Editor-in-Chief of Autism Parenting Magazine and a public speaker on autism related issues. She is the author of three autism related books: Emotional Mastery for Adult's with Autism (2013); Early Signs of Autism in Toddlers, Infants and Babies (2014); and the children's book Grace Figures Out School (2014).

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