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
Many children with autism have been able to learn and communicate successfully via sign language because it is visually based, unaided, and provides a mode of quick communication. Additionally, it is something that can be easily learned and used anywhere, at any time.What are the benefits of using sign language? ›
- Stronger bond between parents and infants. ...
- Improved spatial reasoning. ...
- Enhanced ability to interpret body language. ...
- Better reaction times and peripheral vision. ...
- Long-term cognitive benefits of learning sign language.
Special Needs – Social Benefits of Sign Language
Sign language reduces frustration by providing a way to expressively communicate in situations where verbal communication may not be successful. Sign language breaks down communication barriers for children with various disabilities and needs.
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.How do you say autistic in/sign language? ›
AUTISM in ASL / SIGN TRIBE ACADEMY /AMERICAN ... - YouTubeHow do you use AAC for autism? ›
Low-tech systems use equipment like cards, boards or books with photos or pictures that represent tasks, actions or objects. Autistic children can learn to use these tools to understand what people are saying, ask for what they need, make comments and answer other people's questions.What is sign language in special education? ›
American Sign Language, or ASL, is a language that many students with disabilities use to communicate their needs to a special education teacher. For this reason, many colleges offer courses in sign language as a part of their degree plans.How does sign communication influence teaching? ›
How does sign language help communication? Sign language provides the visual prompt necessary for autistic learners to understand a new vocabulary word, request or other communication.Why we should learn sign language in schools? ›
Being proficient in ASL allows you to communicate with a wide range of hearing, hard of hearing, and deaf individuals—including students in mainstream and deaf school or university programs and deaf or hard of hearing residents and business people in your community.Does sign language count as words? ›
MYTH: Signs don't count as words.
FACT: Signs are part of your baby's word count. Signs are words in Sign Language, so – just like with any other language – they count as words.
Autistic children can find it hard to relate to and communicate with other people. They might be slower to develop language, have no language at all, or have significant problems with understanding or using spoken language. They might not use gestures to make up for the problems they have with words.Is sign language a form of AAC? ›
AAC can involve unaided communication, such as facial expression, body posture, gesture, or sign language, and aided modes (e.g., communication books, tablets).What are 5 interesting facts about sign language? ›
- It's the fourth most used language in the UK. ...
- Different countries have their own versions of sign language. ...
- Sign language uses more than just hand gestures. ...
- Many deaf people have 'name signs' ...
- Sign language isn't as difficult to learn as it looks.
As for children with speech and language delays, using sign language will allow them to begin communicating before they are able to speak as well. For some children, this is the push they need to begin speaking. This is often true for children with autism.How can sign languages help in improving the effectiveness of communication? ›
Sign language helps increase intelligibility for children when sign is combined with speech. It increases early language development, brain growth, and motor skill acquisition. Also, it incorporates the natural tendency to gesture and gives gesturing a purpose, which is an effective way to communicate.What is the new symbol for autism? ›
A relatively new symbol for autism, the butterfly has been a suggested replacement for the puzzle piece as it inspires thoughts of change and symbolizes the beauty of diversity and continued development.Can a nonverbal child learn sign language? ›
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's visually based and provides a mode of quick communication. Research also shows that it may actually help nonverbal people to become verbal.Can a non verbal child speak? ›
The researchers found that, in fact, most of these children did go on to acquire language skills. Nearly half (47 percent) became fluent speakers. Over two-thirds (70 percent) could speak in simple phrases.What is best communication device for autism? ›
- Visual boards.
- Picture exchange communication system (PECS)
- Sign language.
- Low technology interventions.
- High technology electronic devices.
Examples include battery-operated sensory toys, visual timers, and social skills videos. High-tech AT is digital technology and can include anything from augmentative communication technology for non-verbal people to robots built to increase social skills in children on the spectrum.
The AAC strategy or technique used by the person aims to maximise an individual's communication skills (i.e., production as well as comprehension) for functional and effective communication of their needs, preferences and wishes. An AAC system may be used permanently or temporarily.What are the cons of sign language? ›
Sign language requires the use of hands to make gestures. This can be a problem for people who do not have full use of their hands. Even seemingly manageable disabilities such as Parkinson's or arthritis can be a major problem for people who must communicate using sign language.What can children be taught signing through? ›
Teaching children to sign either through Makaton or British Sign Language can hold so many benefits and can be used and understood by young children in baby rooms right the way up to adults. This gives children of all ages the opportunity to have a voice and to communicate their needs and interests with others.Should sign language be taught in schools research? ›
Studies confirm lifelong cognitive benefits in young children, and it can be inferred that if ASL is taught to secondary students, they could also achieve these cognitive advancements. In addition, teaching ASL to hearing students increases inclusivity and cultural awareness amongst student populations.Why is it important for teachers to learn sign language? ›
Teachers are constantly searching for new ways to engage their students in the learning process. Using sign language within the classroom is one solution to reach all learners. Sign language can enhance the learning process by bringing visual, auditory and kinesthetic feedback to help reach all students.How are symbols or signs useful in communication or in giving messages? ›
Symbols serve two distinct social-cognitive functions: communication and representation. Vygotsky (1934/1986) proposed that symbols are learned within a social context and, once internalized, can be used not only to share meaning with others, but also as mental tools to construct an understanding of the world.How important is sign language to students who have hearing impairment? ›
Sign languages are an extremely important communication tool for many deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Sign languages are the native languages of the Deaf community and provide full access to communication.Why is ASL not taught in schools? ›
American Sign Language* is not a required school subject for the same reason that Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, and Tagalog aren't required school subjects. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to teach every subject that students might find beneficial, so you have to pick and choose.Is sign language universal? ›
There is no universal sign language. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) is a different language from ASL, and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL. Some countries adopt features of ASL in their sign languages.How is sign language taught? ›
Sign language classes can be found at community colleges, universities, libraries, churches, organizations/clubs of the deaf, and lots of other places. You can also expand your knowledge of ASL by practicing your signs with people who are deaf or hard of hearing and also know ASL.
ASL - EVERYTHING in Sign Language - YouTubeDoes sign language help speech? ›
Research shows that sign language speeds up speech development, reduces frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk, increases parent-child bonding, and lets babies communicate vital information, such as if they are hurt or hungry.Do you sign every word in sign language? ›
No. Signed languages don't have signs for words. They have signs for concepts, just like we have words for concepts in our verbal languages. Take the word 'can'.Will autistic child ever be normal? ›
In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.Can a child show signs of autism and not be autistic? ›
Not all children with autism show all the signs. Many children who don't have autism show a few. That's why professional evaluation is crucial.Do autistic people have empathy? ›
Every person living with autism is unique; some may struggle with empathy while others may feel completely overwhelmed by other people's feelings, and then there is everyone in between. It seems that autistic expression of empathy may be atypical.What are the 3 categories of AAC? ›
- Unaided communication systems rely on the user's body to convey messages. ...
- Aided communication systems require the use of tools or equipment in addition to the user's body. ...
- Electronic communication aids allow the user to use picture symbols, letters, and/or words and phrases to create messages.
What types of AAC are often used? AAC incorporates all the tools and strategies a person can use to communicate, when they are not able to speak. Often we break them into 2 groups: Unaided and Aided AAC.What type of individuals are significantly very successful with AAC? ›
Prevalent conditions leading to a need for AAC include Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism spectrum disorder, learning difficulties, stroke, cerebral palsy, head/brain injury, profound and multiple learning disabilities, and motor neuron disease/amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (Perry et al., 2004; ...What causes non speaking autism? ›
The causes of nonspeaking autism are unknown. However, there appears to be a relationship between joint attention and verbal communication. Joint attention occurs between two individuals when one draws the other's attention to an object through gesturing (i.e. eye gazing, pointing).
Having nonspeaking autism does not mean that a person does not communicate, cannot communicate, or does not understand language. Some nonspeaking autistic individuals write and verbally communicate in other ways, such as via typing or special communication devices.Do autistic children have their own language? ›
Autistic children can find it hard to relate to and communicate with other people. They might be slower to develop language, have no language at all, or have significant problems with understanding or using spoken language. They might not use gestures to make up for the problems they have with words.Do nonverbal autistic children babble? ›
Many nonverbal individuals with autism produce jargon as a repetitive, self-stimulatory behavior. Typically, this type of jargon is not directed toward another person. On the other hand, in cases of speech-language delay, a child's babbling may indeed represent the precursors to speech.Will autistic child ever be normal? ›
In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.Why is autism increasing? ›
The global increase in autism prevalence reflects major improvements in public awareness and public health response to autism. Children are now more likely to be diagnosed earlier, and even underrepresented regions like Africa and the Middle East have been advancing their ability to measure autism prevalence.What age do autistic children talk? ›
Wodka's team studied 535 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who had “only a few single words at most” at age 4. By age 8, 70 percent had developed phrase or fluent speech, with 47 percent speaking fluently.Do autistic people have empathy? ›
Every person living with autism is unique; some may struggle with empathy while others may feel completely overwhelmed by other people's feelings, and then there is everyone in between. It seems that autistic expression of empathy may be atypical.Does autism come from the mother or father? ›
The team found that mothers passed only half of their structural variants on to their autistic children—a frequency that would be expected by chance alone—suggesting that variants inherited from mothers were not associated with autism. But surprisingly, fathers did pass on substantially more than 50% of their variants.What's high functioning autism? ›
“High-functioning autism” isn't an official medical term or diagnosis. It's an informal one some people use when they talk about people with an autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills like eating and getting dressed. They can live independently.Can a child show signs of autism and not be autistic? ›
Not all children with autism show all the signs. Many children who don't have autism show a few. That's why professional evaluation is crucial.
Promote expressive language development:
Narrating playtime and activities helps socially connect your child and teaches new vocabulary. Adding new words to activities and building on your child's interests keeps language skills growing. Leave space to talk. Make sure your child has a turn to communicate.
Social anxiety – or extreme fear of new people, crowds and social situations – is especially common among people with autism. In addition, many people with autism have difficulty controlling anxiety once something triggers it.What kids should not do with autism? ›
- Feeding into their behavior – Kids of the spectrum might engage with caretakers or parents by making annoying sounds or moving in ways they think would get their attention.
- It might escalate into poor behavior if they see that it gets them what they want.
A recent study by UC Davis MIND Institute researchers found that the severity of a child's autism symptoms can change significantly between the ages of 3 and 11. The study was published in Autism Research, and built on previous work by the same researchers on changes to autism characteristics in early childhood.Will my 3 year old autistic son ever talk? ›
The researchers found that, in fact, most of these children did go on to acquire language skills. Nearly half (47 percent) became fluent speakers. Over two-thirds (70 percent) could speak in simple phrases.