Sign Language for Children with Autism

Marketing Intern | Shield HealthCare
07/13/16  4:57 PM PST
Sign language for children with autism

Sign language for children with autism may be a helpful tool to improve communication.

I’m a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google images.” – Mary Temple Grandin (Professor of Animal Science, Autism Advocate) 

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the umbrella term for a broad group of developmental disorders that affect sensory input, behavior and communication. Individuals with autism are often referred to as “being on the spectrum.” This is because ASD covers a wide range – or “spectrum” – of symptoms, skill sets, and levels of disability. Children and adults with autism often have a hard time communicating and difficulty with social interactions.

On average, ASD is diagnosed around the age of 3 and has no known cause. Children with autism may avoid eye contact and not fully understand emotions expressed on your face. They may also repeat words or behaviors. When frustrated or stressed, they may compensate by displaying behaviors that seem odd to others, such as biting, flapping their hands or even harming themselves. Many of these reactions can be chalked up to the inability to communicate and vocalize their needs.

Some speech therapists use sign language – or signed speech – with children on the spectrum in order to further their speech development and understanding of everyday things. While this may not be appropriate for everyone, there are some who have largely benefited from the use of sign language.

Sign language for children with autism

Children with autism have a hard time connecting spoken words to objects. Your child may often be frustrated because he cannot communicate effectively. As a parent, you may become frustrated with behaviors your child uses to get his point across. Teaching signed words to your child can give him a way to make his needs known in a more socially acceptable manner.

Using sign language with your child may help develop open communication skills. It can provide a way for him to communicate his needs that is not crying or throwing tantrums, thus little by little eliminating stressful behaviors and promoting more effective communication.

Though everyone is different, children on the spectrum might benefit from Signing Exact English or SEE signing. American Sign Language has very different sentence structuring then SEE signing. In American Sign Language the sentence structure goes from subject to verb, then object; with SEE signing, sentence structure follows the rules of the English language.

For example:

Spoken sentence: “The fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

SEE– “The fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

ASL– “Fox jump over dog, dog lazy.”

Is sign language for everyone?

While some children on the spectrum might benefit, others may not. This is purely based on the fact that everyone is different, and we learn in different ways. Some people are auditory learners, while others are visual, physical, or reading- and writing- based learners. It is important to understand that not all children with autism are visual learners. There are many communication tools that can be used to help children on the spectrum communicate, such as apps, computer programs, and even music.

Why sign language with children may be successful

Signing is successful because of the repetition of the sign in the same visual place, allowing your child to process and commit the sign and its meaning – along with the spoken word –  to long-term memory. Sign language is taught to some children with autism as a primary way to communicate. Many children with autism never fully develop the ability to communicate effectively through words.

How do I learn sign language?

Parents and caregivers can learn sign language in many different ways, including:

Some Signs To Get You Started!

Sign Language for children with Autism

If signing is something you are considering, here are a few signs to get you and your child started.

“Eat” – Make your fingers touch your thumb like you would do if you were making a sock puppet talk and tap on your bottom lip. Don’t forget to say the word “Food” or “Eat” as well as showing them a picture of food. You can practice this during dinner or lunch.

“Drink” – Pretend you are holding a cup and tip the imaginary cup towards your mouth to sign “Drink”

“More” – Shape your hands as if you were eating a sandwich and bring the tips of your fingers together.

More resources on sign language:

Signing Savvy: Your Sign Language Resource

Autism Research Institute

Autism Speaks

The Benefits of Teaching Sign Language to Children with Autism

Click here for more helpful links and resources on autism spectrum disorder and other conditions of children with special needs.

For more information, see related articles and resources here:

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  1. Our son was constantly frustrated because he couldn’t tell us what he wanted. His only way to tell us anything was to take my hand and drag mo to a location and I would try to figure out what he wanted. PECS wasn’t working and speech therapy wasn’t helping. We got tired of our four year old son yanking on our arms all day and we were desperate. When we were cleaning our storage, I found an old baby sign language book. He had trouble with signs that were similar, but we worked it out and he learned more words in three weeks at home than he did in two years of speech therapy. The amazing thing was he quickly paired the spoken word with the sign. If you try baby sign, be flexible and keep your child’s fine motor skills in mind. Signing letters will be too hard for many on the spectrum. Food and drink were too similar so we used hungry for food. Start with the thing your child asks for most often, for our son, that was the signs for more and drink.

    We had to find sign language on our own, I wish more therapists and teachers would try it.

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