Can Sign Language Help With Autism?

Autism affects over 1.5 million people in the US. About 40% of them experience language delays or deficits. Sign language helps many with communication.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 20, 2023
min read

How Does Autism Affect Speech?

Autism affects both expressive and receptive language skills. These challenges can also be accompanied by other delays, such as difficulty understanding nonverbal cues, social skills, and conversational skills.

Autism affects both expressive and receptive language skills.

These language challenges can show up at any age, even in adulthood, but they are most commonly seen between the ages of two and four. The most common early signs of autism are language delays, with some showing up as early as 18 months. Many times, they are not discovered until the child is ready to enter school around age five.

Language deficits can range from mild to severe and can take many forms. These challenges include difficulties:

  • Understanding verbal instructions
  • With spoken language
  • Forming complete sentences
  • With limited vocabulary
  • Understanding word context
  • Understanding abstract concepts
  • With written language

People with autism can have one or many of these challenges, making communication with others difficult. This can create challenges in maintaining friendships, participating in group activities, or success in school. Language barriers often lead to an inability to express their thoughts and feelings, which can lead to frustration and outbursts.

When a child displays signs of autism or language deficits, it is important to get an early diagnosis. Early intervention is key to helping them overcome their challenges and lead an independent life. Teaching the autistic person to communicate with sign language opens many doors and opportunities early on.

What Is Sign Language?

People with autism tend to be visually oriented, rather than language oriented. They tend to think in pictures, as opposed to word strings. Sign language is a visually-based form of communication and uses hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning.

Sign language is different from spoken language in many ways. There are different types of sign language, such as Signed Exact English (SEE) and American Sign Language (ASL). These are the two main systems of sign language.

SEE translates the English language word-for-word using the same grammar rules as spoken English. ASL uses its own sentence structure and is used by the deaf community and by those who have a hearing impairment. Other systems include Pidgin Signed English (PSE) and Signed Exact English 2 (SEE2).

Using Sign Language for Autism

Sign language gives the person with autism a way to interface with the rest of the world. They can express themselves and be understood by others. Some disagreement exists as to whether it is best to teach children with autism SEE or ASL, and there is some controversy over whether it is a good idea to teach autistic children sign language at all.

The advantage of teaching them SEE is that they can communicate more easily with those who understand spoken language. It is thought that this makes more of the world accessible to the person. ASL is only used by a limited number of the population, and most commonly by the deaf and hearing-impaired community.

If you decide to have your child learn sign language due to language impairment, then it is important to decide which system is more appropriate. A therapist experienced in the needs of autistic children can offer advice on which one might open more opportunities. Remember that you and those who interact with the child frequently will also need to learn the sign system.

Sign Language Helps with Communication

Sign language can help an autistic child overcome many challenges besides spoken speech. It opens the door to getting on track with preschool skills, such as the precursors to language and math. They can participate in many early learning activities that would be closed to them without the ability to communicate with parents, teachers, and peers.

Language deficits set the child up for challenges in other areas of life, including academics. Overcoming these challenges leads to greater success in literacy and other areas of education. Finding a way to compensate for language challenges early in life is the key to minimizing the negative effects on academic skills, and making sure they are ready for school.

How Sign Language Improves Social Skills

Our ability to interact with other human beings depends on the language. For the autistic child, the ability to express themselves also helps to improve social skills by bridging the communication gap. They can have productive conversations and make their needs known.

If the child is non-verbal or only partially verbal, it is difficult to play games and interact with peers. They miss an important part of early childhood development, and this can affect them as adults. The ability to communicate opens the opportunity to learn important skills, like taking turns, waiting your turn, and saying "please" and "thank you."

Sign language also makes daily living activities easier. For instance, it is easier to go shopping, go to the park, and get ready for school. The ability to communicate can also strengthen bonds with parents, siblings, and peers. Learning sign language also builds on imitation skills, which is something that does not come naturally to someone with autism.

How Sign Language Decreases Aggression

Some autistic children are prone to outbursts or aggression toward others. The most common root of these behaviors is a lack of communication and frustration. The inability to make your feelings and needs known can lead to isolation and anxiety.

Many times, when children learn sign language and can communicate, those around them see an almost immediate decrease in unwanted behaviors. For some children, sign language can be used to augment efforts and fill in gaps when learning verbal communication. They can learn functional speech instead of crying or yelling.

Cons of Sign Language for Children With Autism

Proponents of sign language for autistic children believe it opens a whole new world and can help the child make improvements in many areas of life. Others feel that it creates more problems than it solves.

Some fear that learning sign language will discourage a child from continuing to develop verbal communication skills. In practice, it has been found that sign language accelerates verbal language skills and does not replace them. Children have success and are encouraged to increase their communication skills even more.

Another challenge is that some believe that because the signing community is small, it limits the autistic person's ability to explore new people and experiences. Almost 25% of people with autism never communicate verbally. For them, sign language gives them opportunities they might never have.

Tips for Learning Sign Language

Many resources are available for learning sign language yourself and helping your child. Your therapist at Cross River Therapy is an excellent resource for learning tools and support. It is a good idea to speak with your therapist about which version of sign language would be most appropriate for your child.

When beginning to learn sign language with your child, it is best to start with basic signs, like "eat," "drink," and "more." These signs are easy to learn, and they give your child the ability to tell you about their basic needs. You can build on these and advance to more complex topics, just as you would if you were teaching a child without autism to communicate.

Learning sign language can be a fun activity with your child and open up a wider world to them. The first place to start is to talk to your child's therapist about the available opportunities and the best place to start. Contact Cross River Therapy to get started helping your child learn this important skill.


steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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