A lot of times professionals are reluctant to teach sign language fearing it might interfere with vocal speech or that no one would understand children if they use signs. There’s also confusion about where the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) fits in and whether a child who is already using PECS or electronic devices to communicate really needs to be taught signs too.
When I started working as a Behavior Analyst in 2003 I didn’t know any sign language because my son Lucas was always vocal. What I learned early on is that parents and professionals didn’t need formal sign language training. Instead, they just needed to stay 5 signs ahead of the child and oftentimes we would modify signs so they were super easy for everyone, including the child and we would all learn the signs together.
I learned a few things about sign language since 2003 and a few of the biggest benefits of teaching any child with autism a few signs don’t even involve improving speech!
Benefit #1) Sign language often leads to vocal language: Sign language is great for early learners who are not yet speaking because it’s portable and we can eventually teach a child (who doesn’t acquire speech) to use signs across the operants. For example, we can first teach the child to request or mand for ball when he wants it, then to label a picture of a ball and finally to answer questions about a ball (you throw a _______).
Research has shown that, when sign is accompanied by spoken words, it works to improve vocalizations and I have found that most of my clients who I start working with at a young age eventually do acquire some spoken language.
Benefit #2) Children who are taught signs are more accepting of physical prompts, which are often needed for teaching lots of skills. Most of my clients with autism who had no ability to speak when I began working with them, also had no ability to echo, match, touch body parts or imitate either. I have found that teaching 3-5 signs very early on helps children accept physical prompts and can reduce problem behaviors.
Benefit #3) Sign language can help teach a child to imitate. One of the biggest misconceptions about sign language is that a child needs to know how to imitate before we can teach him to communicate via sign. Luckily, this is not the case. I have found that one of the best ways to teach a child to imitate is to teach them 3-5 signs because you can often fade your physical prompts to imitation prompts.
So to summarize, I believe teaching 3 to 5 signs is an important step in developing language in your child or client with autism. In addition to improving language, two other huge benefits not talked about much are an increase in the child’s acceptance of physical prompts and increasing the child’s ability to imitate.
In next week’s blog, I’m going to discuss what words and signs NOT to teach first.
I’ll see you next week.