Sign Language was first used for the hearing-impaired. Years ago, Autistic children were taught to communicate through Sign Language. With today’s technology, computers have taken over as the best form of communication for people with communication difficulties. I understand it is more sensible to use computers. However, how often does a child have a computer on hand when they go on an outing?
Many behaviors associated with Autism and other developmental disabilities such as anxiety and meltdowns are due to the persons inability or difficulty to communicate. What happens if your child with Autism wants to communicate with you or his/her siblings and can’t find the words or are afraid to communicate in public? You guessed it, they remain silent or they act out and may have a meltdown. Research suggests that teaching sign language along with speech will likely accelerate a person’s ability to communicate. It would be easier for that child to use Sign Language to communicate their feelings, wants or needs.
I am the parent of four children. When all four of my children were very young, I taught them how to use Sign Language along with speaking. It started off with just small words like drink, water, milk, and the phrase “I love you.” As they got a little bit older and learned to speak more words I increased their Sign Language vocabulary. If they pointed to the milk, I would Sign the word milk and say the word milk.
My youngest son didn’t point to what he wanted that often. So, it was a bit more difficult for me to figure out what he wanted. It took him longer to learn Sign Language. I think that’s when I knew that he was different. To this day, he doesn’t use Sign Language very often but he can read my signs, understand them and respond appropriately. For example, he knows the signs for please, thank you, sit, stop, I love you, yes and no. He knows other signs too but the ones that I mentioned are the ones that I use most often when we are out in public. If he starts acting up, I can sign the word stop or sit. He responds better to the signs more than facial expressions. If I try to make facial expresisons he usually says, “what?” as he doesn’t understand a lot of facial expressions. He understands the signs so much better and his behavior is quickly adapted to what I expect him to do.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone with Autism or communication difficulties should be taught Sign Language. Not everyone would benefit from learning Sign Language. But, for some people, it may be very beneficial. It would have to be a personal decision. I personally found it helpful for our family.
Most children, whether neuro typical or not, have to be reminded to say please and thank you. I find it much easier and respectful of my childs’ feelings to prompt them without making them feel embarrassed. When we are out in public and the children forget their manners, I non-chalantly turn my back on the person they are speaking to and sign and mouth the word please or thank you. It becomes less embarrassing for them. I am not verbally reminding them to “mind their manners.” They get a visual cue without the other person knowing that my child had to be reminded to be respectful. This has also helped my children to read lips. Children, and adults, with Asperger’s syndrome have a difficult (if not impossible) time looking someone in the eyes. My son, Austin, is the same way. However, when I sign something to him he focuses his attention on my hands and doesn’t have to look me in the eye. It’s very difficult for me to look people in the eyes too. So, when I come across someone who doesn’t sign, I look at their mouth so I can read their lips.
If you decide to teach your child Sign Language it’s much easier to start them off with signs that express their basic needs such as drink, the need to eat, and having to use the bathroom. You know your child best and what signs would be best for them to learn. You don’t have to teach them the whole English language in Sign. But, a few basic signs to help them communicate better is helpful. Depending on your child, it may take a few minutes or a few months to learn their first sign. I taught my children when they were just learning how to speak. If you have a child that is older, it may take longer for them to learn Sign Language. It may take you some time to learn it yourself. But, it’s a learning experience that you can do together. If you are interested in free lessons for basic signs you can visit the American Sign Language University. Dr. Bill Vicars is the president and owner of the Lifeprint Institute, a consultation business focusing on technology-enhanced delivery of ASL Instruction. He is an associate-professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at a university in Sacramento, California. You can view his biography HERE.