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Teaching a Child with Autism Sign Language

Updated on September 9, 2011

Have you considered teaching your child with Autism how to sign?

More and more professionals are saying that they have had success in improving communication skills in Children with Autism spectrum disorder through the use of sign language. While most kids with autism will not learn to sign fluently, they are likely to pick up some very important words to communicate.

Kids with autism are visual learners, they often have difficulty picking up spoken language because they need more visual input which is why visual cues are so effective.

When a child with ASD learns a few simple words, this can make a huge difference in the quality of life of not just the child, but the entire family.

More and more schools are beginning to incorporate Sign language into their special education programs by ensuring that they have staff who are qualified to sign who use it WHILE speaking throughout the entire day! There are still a lot of schools and therapists however who have not yet started using it as an intervention- mostly because it can be hard to find qualified teachers who are fluent in both ASL and Signed English (which are different).

Most parents have one big concern when they are first approached by schools and therapists about the use of sign language...

"Won't this discourage my child from learning verbal language?"

That was my concern as well when we first started. - The concern was completely unfounded in our case!

My son started learning sign just before he turned three years old. His early intervention teacher and his preschool teacher both used it fluently while speaking to him and they recommended a DVD for us to use at home. We used the DVD and although my hands lack the dexterity to do it well, I am able to use all of the basic sign that he needs and I can understand more advanced sign!

In fact, my son fell in love with it! I thought "great, now he will never gain any speech for sure" but at least he has a way to let us know that he needs something (which also helps reduce meltdowns by the way).

When the sign language is taught simultaneously with verbal language, the child can understand the word better. While signing the word for "dog" you say the word "dog" and show the child an actual dog. ... eventually, my son was able to say most of the words as he was signing- just like his teacher.

Some kids with autism will never speak with or without sign but if they do pick up a little bit then you will have given them one of the greatest gifts of all.

Reinforce the sign that they have learned

If the child learns to use the sign for "stop" and uses it when you are trying to brush their hair for example... if you do stop, this will help reinforce that communication is good and they might try harder to learn a few more!

Sure, their hair still needs to be brushed, but save that for later- if the child sees that the reward for them trying to communicate is that you listen (or obey, whatever the case!) then it really helps them to stay motivated and keep trying!

Signing Time teaches kids ASL (American Sign Language) - These are the DVD's Recommended to us by our teachers

These DVD's are great! We have all of the Signing time DVD's listed below. I love these because, although the tape on her fingers is a bit distracting when you first start watching, it quickly becomes necessary to identify which finger goes where and it is REALLY helpful!

Rachel is a fun and energetic Mom and kids really like her DVD's so getting the child to watch is not usually that hard (my son got annoyed at the intro and during some of the downtime, but he perked up whenever she spoke!)

These are most effective if you use them every day until your child masters them, then move along to the next one! Kids with short attention spans (like my son) may need to have 1/2 of the DVD at a time.

Here is Rachel Doing Holiday Signing Times Previews!

Does Signing with a Child with Autism Encourage or Discourage Verbal Language?

What do you think?

Other ways to learn Sign Language

DVD's are great, but if you are looking for something else....

Some community colleges offer free ASL courses once a year. They are very basic intro courses but you might want to check if any of your local colleges offer something like that! You would go and learn it then practice with your child.

Look for a tutor- but be sure that they are qualified!

Online you can find sign language flash cards but remember to use caution with them- you would not know if they are correct or not and small differences might mean a very different thing- seeing it done by a real person is far better!

Please remember that if you choose to learn Sign Language online you do not know anything about the person teaching it to you! A few years ago I learned what was SUPPOSED to be "great job!" and when I used it with my son in the grocery store, a man approached me (who was deaf) and told me not to be so hard on him, he is not bothering anyone.... turns out that the signs that I had learned from some flash cards (which I whipped out and showed him to ask if there was a subtle difference that I had done incorrectly).

The nice man went through the cards and was shocked- a lot of what was in there labelled as positive things were actually insults- some aimed at the deaf community. He took some time to teach me the proper signs but I have never been so embarrassed or felt so guilty!

Because of that very experience, I am only listing basic resources online- the Signing times videos are safe and look below for a link to a free printable American sign language alphabet chart!!

American Sign Language Alphabet

I will add any links to reputable sites after confirming that they are in fact teaching what they claim to be! Most are very good, but that is not something you want to take a chance on!

Any tips for learning Sign Language?

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    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      I think it's a great idea. I took sign language in college and we learned it quickly as our teacher was deaf. I can see where it would benefit autistic children and provide them with another way to communicate.