Teaching Sign Language: Why I Still Start with Sign for Language Development

I got an interesting email about teaching sign language just the other day that I’d like to read and answer for you right here:

Sign language for autism provides numerous benefits. Click the button below to start learning how to apply this information and start teaching your child or client with autism sign language.

A woman wrote, “I do follow all of your videos and posts and enjoy them. I also read your book about VB.  I have a question about kids who have limited speech or are still learning to communicate. I noticed that you speak a lot in your book about teaching sign language, but also your book was written before all these communication apps became popular. What is your opinion/suggestion on the use of sign language right now, and if you were writing your book today, what would be your stance?”

I love this question, and this person is right in that when I wrote my book in 2006, it was published in 2007, and I had a strong preference for teaching sign language for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I talk about this in chapter six of my book, and there is a nice little appendix back here, appendix number three, with all the visuals of some of the early signs that I do teach.

I do think that if I was writing my book today I would actually have an even stronger preference for teaching sign language, even though there are lots of different iPad apps and communication systems out there now. I like sign and I’m sticking with sign for a few reasons.

First of all, I don’t think early learners, in my experience, have the visual discrimination skills to hop right onto an iPad app and make choices and go through different screens. Sure, they love to play on the iPad apps, but playing on iPad apps and doing repetitive kinds of movements is different than making choices and going through screens, and I think it’s too complex.

I also found other advantages to teaching sign, more so than just communication. Some of the advantages of teaching several signs to early learners who are not yet speaking or not speaking well.

First of all, we always have our hands. Hands are portable. Whether you and the child are in a pool or the child’s on a trampoline, you always have your hands available for that “Jump, jump, jump.” “Oh, what do you want? Jump.” You can prompt their hands to do the sign for jump, and then you help them jump a little bit more. If I was using a communication device, the child might have to get off the trampoline, go through the screens, find the word for jump, hit the word jump, get back on. It really breaks up the routine.

I also have found that the child will allow me a lot more physical prompting, where I go in with her hand and I might sign for cookie or I might sign movie or ball, and give the child the reinforcement right away, thus I pair my teaching and my physical prompts with reinforcement, so I think that’s huge. Finally, unlike some people who believe that you need imitation skills to teach sign, I actually think the sign promotes great imitation skills. As I fade my prompts, the child will pick up some of the first imitation skills, will probably be that of sign language.

If you have any questions that you’d like for me to answer on this blog, email us at [email protected], and I’ll see you next week.

Sign language for autism provides numerous benefits. Click the button below to start learning how to apply this information and start teaching your child or client with autism sign language.


  1. My child with ASD was 14 months old when we started speech therapy, With the therapist using many common, easy signs weekly. 6 months later at 20 months old, she still had no words and no signs. That’s when I found the VB map and realized my child was a very high visual learner. I ordered her a custom PECS book off Etsy and within 1 week she was using it to tell me what she wanted.
    I honestly think it’s different for every child and not all children learn the same. 6 months of signs and my daughter never picked up not one, 1 week of PECS and she was already communicating her wants and needs with me.

    1. that is great but at 14 months i wonder if there is much of a speech delay or developmental delay recognizable in yr child. The PECS pictures are very hard for certain children who have trouble matching. If your child is not mobile it might be different. The problem is that so many of us with children with severe communication delays we are constantly battling against professionals who have preferences and not necessarily what is best for child. That is great if it worked for yr child but forso many there are no results. sad because all you have to do is go into some IMR facilities in our area and see what years of speech therapy and pecs has produced for those severely impacted by speech delays…

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