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The Use of Sign Language to Help  Autistic Children Communicate

Also see: Autism and ASL


The Use of Sign Language to Help  Autistic Children Communicate

By Lindsay Peterson
November 25, 2008

 Autism is a developmental disability that begins in early childhood and persists throughout adulthood affecting three crucial areas of development: verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and creative or imaginative play. Other characteristics may include repetitive and ritualistic behaviors, hand flapping, spinning or running in circles, excessive fears, self-injury such as head banging or biting, aggression, insensitivity to pain, temper tantrums, and sleeping and eating disturbances Carr & Kologinsky, 1983). Many of these issues stem from the child's inability to communicate their wants and/or needs.

      Communication deficits include autistic people's difficulty using spoken language and gestures, inability to initiate and sustain appropriate conversation and use of inappropriate, repetitive language. Autistic children have great difficulty understanding spoken words. They have trouble understanding that words relate to objects and activities. Abstract words are extremely challenging because they are not linked to something tangible that can be inspected and pointed to. Without concrete visual connections to objects or activities, words are nearly impossible for them to understand (Ticani, 2004).

      There has been extensive research done exploring different ways to teach Autistic children to communicate. Some of the methods tested have been verbal communication, Applied Behavioral Analysis, individual speech sessions, PECS systems and sign language. Sign language has been identified as one of the best ways to strengthen speech and language development of an autistic child. According to research the use of sign language increases the chance of children learning the spoken language (Thompson, McKerchar &Dancho 2004). Therefore, using sign language with pre-school aged autistic children may help enable them to stimulate and strengthen their communication. In addition it also provides children with and alternative mode of communication. Instead of crying and or whining the child now has another means to communicate what they want therefore extinguishing that negative behavior Teaching sign language to the child would provide him/her with a way of expressing his/her needs in a manner which is more socially accepted and easily understood. Due to this the child would experience less frustration (Ticani 2004).

       It is easy for parents or caregivers to learn sign language and utilize it while interacting with an autistic child. There are many resources available to help parents learn sign language and to be able to teach it to their children. It is found that autistic children are able to learn signing successfully. Some reasons for this are that signs can be physically guided unlike speech; signs can be frozen in time in order for the child to process it. When teaching sign language, one can repeat a sing numerous times and physically prompt the student until the child has success on his or her own. This repetition is likely to help the child commit the signs to memory.  (Thompson, Contnoir-Bichelman, McKercharm Tate & Dancho, 2007).

            Along with enhancing and stimulating speech in autistic children, sign language is also being taught for them to use as their primary means of communication. Many autistic children never develop the ability to communicate verbally. Some never utter a single word. By teaching them sign language you are giving them a means of communication and a sense of independence. For any individual with autism communication is their greatest difficulty. Providing them with the ability to communicate with people in the environment is vital to their independence.

Sign language is becoming more popular within the autism community. More research is still needed in this area. More people should be aware of the benefits of sign language in order to help children with autism communicate more effectively and to help alleviate some of the stress in their everyday life.


1.         Carr, E & Kologinsky, E. (1983). Acquisition of Sign Language by Autistic Children II: Spontaneity and Generalization Effects. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 16, 296-314.

2.         Ticani, M (Jan 2004). Comparing the Picture Exchange Communication System and Sign Language Training for Children with Autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 19, 152-163.

3.         Thompson, R. H., McKerchar, P. M., & Dancho, K. A. (2004). The Effects of Delayed Physical Prompts and Reinforcement on Infant Sign Language Acquisition. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 37, 379-383.

4.         Thompson. R. H, Contnoir-Bichelman, N.M, McKerchar, P.M, Tate, T.L & Dancho, K.A., (2007). Enhancing Early Communication Through Infant Sign Training. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 40, 15-23.


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