Autism and the Benefits of Sign Language

Children diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder frequently have challenges developing vigorous gestural and non-verbal communication. Due to complex challenges in visual, auditory, spatial, and tactile sensory systems, children with speech and communicative disorders, often experience difficulties in grasping a wide range of meanings for concepts and relations expressed through words. Their aptitude to become deliberate communicators can be restricted by the above deficits. I find that sign language often provides a bridge to support a child’s ability to gesture more recurrently and with greater intricacy, and provides more information about the meanings of words, events, concepts and relations.

Children who have motor deficits may find it challenging to use sign language correctly but, because of their acquaintance to sign language, they can express new ideas through gestures that can be understood by primary communicative partners, which supports a child intentionality. The child can see that they’re in fact, a communicator and their message is received and acted upon within their environment. They’re also able to share experiences, which leads to a more powerful desire to communicate further. The power to be understood and to send messages that are received and nurtures more intentionality and the desire to make more meaning within one’s world; they become more empowered the more they feel understood by others.

Using sign language specifically as another method of communication has often raised fears for families that if this method is employed for children not yet developing verbal expression, verbal expressive language may never develop. Research within the field of speech and language pathology, as well as alternative and augmentative communication, has conclusively proven otherwise. Language and communication is less about the production of sounds and words and more about the expression of shared meanings within primary relationships. It stands to reason that the creative process is critical to language development and is more intensely demonstrated in the sharing of experience and ideas than of the actual verbal production of words. Again, words without meaning lack the marks of communication. Therefore, children who use sign language to communicate have the ability to express their inner ideas and other cognitive processes with another.

I have personally witnessed the power of sign language. Families have often come with stories of meeting with professionals who have indicated that the severity of the motor deficits impacting speech production for their child indicates that they will never verbally produce words. Our focus begins with building meaning and comprehension for the child while using a wide range of non-verbal modalities and a variety of means of expression.

There is the power of sign language to share meaning with another and build further connections in relationships where a mutual understanding of each other is enhanced by that sharing. For children diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, this is a primary goal that we strive for and can certainly achieve when we are open to the many modalities and possibilities of communication.

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