By Louise Masin Sattler, NCSP | Nationally Certified School Psychologist | Owner of Signing Families
I have taught sign language for more than two decades to children and adults. My students have been as varied in age, occupation, and background as the flowers in a botanical garden. Their reasons for taking sign language workshops or courses also have been different. I have taught new parents with infants who were excited to learn “baby sign”, college students who wanted to fulfill their “foreign” language credit requirements, business owners who wished to communicate with deaf employees and yes; parents, teachers and caregivers who worked with individuals with special needs, such as Autism. I have been asked on numerous occasions if sign language “works” with autistic children. Just like flowers in the garden not being exactly alike, neither are children with Autism. However, after working for most of my career within the field of special education, it is my opinion that sign language can help autistic children with language development.
There has been much research conducted regarding the use of signing and a child’s development of language skills. Signing to a child can be wonderful for promoting verbal language skills for young children who are typically developing or who face challenges. Sign language also involves manual movements, something that many autistic children seek. Facial expressions that accompany sign language help to create the “mood” or relay intent, thus providing a plethora of visual information to facilitate communication. Signing also is interactive and for some that enhances the possibility for language development. Cuing a child with sign to help promote social interactions or giving signals for caution if there is a potentially dangerous situation are other valuable advantages to learning sign.
Now not all sign languages are the same. Sign language is not universal. American Sign Language (ASL) is actually more akin to French in word order and syntax. Thus, most special educators who work with hearing children recommend a form of signed English or Pidgin Signed English (PSE) in public school programs. This enables the voice and signs to match with more fluidity than if ASL is used. Also, signing does not need to be word for spoken word. A teacher or parent can say a whole phrase but simply sign key words to reinforce or emphasize a concept. When I give educator and parent workshops for my company, Signing Families, I prefer to discuss this method of sign language to exceptional individuals as “Functional Sign Language”. Thus, this form of communication is a modality that augments verbal language and perhaps other systems, as well. (Such as picture exchange.)