Children with autism often have deficits in language and communication skills. According to Autism Speaks Inc. (2021), these may manifest in the inability to speak for almost 40% of children diagnosed with autism. Sign language involves the usage of manual hand signs and movements to represent objects and concepts, and thus presents as an alternative communication system which might be beneficial for nonverbal or limitedly-verbal children with autism. Here, we examine the main advantages of teaching children with autism sign language, before noting some of its limitations.
1. It is easy to pick up
The lack of language skills many individuals with autism face has been found to be contributed by deficits in auditory processing and thus language comprehension. Since sign language is a visual-motor communication system, it may bypass many difficulties that children with autism experience with auditory and verbal processing. Its iconic nature, in which many noun-signs visually resemble the objects referred to, also reduces the conceptual demands placed on learners, making it easier and less stressful to pick up and understand as compared to verbal language. Furthermore, as learning sign language mainly involves miming gestures, teachers can correct and guide learners just by moulding their fingers and hands. Learners also receive simultaneous visual feedback as they can compare their hand movements and positions with their teachers’. This trains their imitation skills while allowing them to be more engaged in their learning. With the lowered difficulty of acquiring this new language system, sign language potentially offers children with autism a confidence boost in their abilities, raising their self-esteem.
2. It reduces problematic behaviours
Children with autism often experience meltdowns and challenging behaviours due to the inability to communicate their needs effectively, or the lack of understanding of their surroundings. For example, crying and screaming to attain something they want; or feeling overwhelmed by verbal speech directed towards them. For these children, carrying out such challenging behaviours allows them to express their needs. When the caregiver attends to them, they can then assess possible reasons for certain behaviour. Sign language offers a functional and socially-acceptable way for children with autism to express a need, while also saving the need for caregivers to guess what they require.
In the same vein, as caregivers can communicate with children with autism through sign language, these children are able to grasp and understand instructions, reducing the stress and confusion they would normally face when only addressed with verbal speech.
3. It facilitates speech and vocabulary acquisition
When used simultaneously with verbal speech, sign language provides a link from a visual and kinaesthetic input to what is being said, facilitating verbal comprehension and vocabulary acquisition. Surprisingly, studies have found that signing and speaking at the same time does not exceed processing limits of children with autism (Mirenda, 2003; Schaeffer, Kollinzas, Musil & McDowell, 1977) . In fact, remembered signs are used as cues for forgotten words and signs help these children distinguish where a word starts and stops – aiding auditory processing. This way, sign language becomes a mediator for the development of oral communication skills. This is supported by studies by Mirenda (2003), Simspon and Lynch (2003), Tincani (2004), and Tock (2011) that children who are exposed to sign and verbal language simultaneously learn new vocabulary more quickly and have larger expressive and receptive vocabulary than those who do not. When sign language is used with verbal speech, visual processing skills supplement these children’s weaker auditory processing skills to achieve understanding of verbal language more effectively.
Although teaching children with autism sign language brings about many advantages, there are factors to consider before beginning this journey with your child.
Firstly, the possession of motor imitation skills likely determines the effectiveness of sign language as a communication system. This is because motor imitation is the foundation of sign language, and is also the means through which this system of communication will be taught.
Secondly, sign language will be most effective only if all key figures in your child’s life are also well-versed in it. When the people interacting most with your child are also adept in sign language, your child can then communicate widely across different contexts.
Thirdly, the ability for children with autism to acquire more complex communicative functions such as those that involve syntax or more abstract and conceptual ideas through sign language is still unknown. However, given the positive outcomes of speech acquisition through sign language, the likelihood of achieving this through practice and training seems optimistic.
To sum up, the benefits of teaching children with autism sign language outweigh its limitations. Importantly, sign language allows the voices of children with autism to be heard, enabling them to fulfil their needs and desires. This alone, coupled with the lack of harm that sign language brings, makes learning sign language a worthy venture for many children with autism to embark on.
Written by Rachel Yam
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