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Signing is for Children with Special Needs!

Photo of paper signs

Children of all abilities can reap the rewards of learning sign language, especially children with special needs.  In fact, as parents and professionals who interact with children with special needs know, often the frustration that children can experience is rooted in their difficulty with communicating effectively.   Signing is a great way to help your child build a working vocabulary to assist with communication and ease frustration.

Children with all types of disabilities can benefit from learning American Sign Language (ASL), including autism, Down Syndrome, apraxia, speech and language delays, Cerebral Palsy, and many others.

          ~From Sheila, a mom to a 5 years old boy with cerebral palsy:
“Eugene attempted to sign "help" today because he wanted juice.  I asked him if he needed help and he partially began the sign.  I was excited.  I wanted to say that I truly believe Eugene is attempting to verbalize more spontaneously since coming to SignShine®.  He says hi, Mama, Ma clearly now.  Sometimes it is just syllables of the word, but that is a start.  He isn't sounding like a ventriloquist like he normally does.  He seems to be attempting to move his lips to talk rather than using his throat only.  I think what is happening is that the signing is awakening an area of his brain that has been dormant for so long.  I guess you could attribute some success as well as his muscles simply beginning to develop, but I think it is more that the area of the brain responsible for speech has been stimulated with the signing and his neurotransmitters are able to send the signals, although staggered.  I am hopeful and excited about the level of success I am seeing”. 

Signing empowers children with special needs by offering them a multitude of cognitive, emotional, and social benefits, including:

  • Improved communication skills
  • Increased speech and language development
  • Increased confidence and self-esteem
  • Increased social-interactions
  • Reduced negative behaviors
  • Creation of a more peaceful learning environment

How Can Signing Help?

Signing can be used anywhere and everywhere...with no equipment needed!  Here are just some of the many areas that signing can assist with your child's communication skills:

At home:

  • making requests: eat, drink, more, play, music,all done, sleep
  • decreasing inappropriate behaviors(communicating wants and needs, explaining to your child what is going to happen “time to go to the bathroom”)
  • during routines (getting dressed, going to bed)
  • expressing pain or sickness
  • can teach other family members and caregivers (siblings, grandma, grandpa)

In school:

  • communicating with the teacher or aides
  • expressing learned concepts, such as colors, shapes, and numbers
  • conveying desires (choosing lunch items, a preferred book, or need for a break)
  • developing peer relationships
  • decreasing frustration

In social situations:

  • building peer relationships
  • requesting items (“my turn”, “please”)
  • increasing appropriate social behaviors and interactions
  • providing a communication tool between peers with and without disabilities

But Wait, I Have Some Questions!

Why should we use sign language if my child is not deaf?
Any child that struggles with spoken language can benefit from using signs. Enhancing communication skills with sign language has a profound impact upon the quality of interactions between children with special needs, their peers, their families, and the professional who work with them.  Sign language is now being used more and more outside the deaf community by children with and without disabilities, in order to communicate more effectively.  In fact, signing is recommended for children with disabilities for several reasons (Sundberg and Partington, 1998):

  • Signing is completely portable and requires no special equipment.
  • Signing can be performed at a speed similar to talking.
  • Signing initiates motor movements, which may prompt talking.
  • Signing may reduce problem behavior more effectively because the response form is more efficient than when using picture selection or exchange.
  • Signing is easier and quicker to learn than picture selection or exchange by some children. Parents or teachers can help a child learn signs by helping mold the child’s hand into the correct sign for a given word.
  • Signing may enhance receptive language.

What if my child already uses pictures to communicate?
Great!  Finding a successful communication tool for your child can be a challenge, and if pictures are working, you are encouraged to continue using them.   Many children with speech and/or language delays use a combination of communication methods.  Each child learns differently, and to assume one way or another will fit everyone would be doing a disservice to our children.  By adding signs to your child's communication repertoire, either independently, or in addition to other forms of communication, such as a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), a child can have a variety of methods to fall back on when trying to get her wants and needs known.  If her pictures aren't within reach, sign!  Signing requires no extra equipment or materials, making it possible to communicate wherever you are. 

My child is receiving speech and language services...will learning sign language interfere?
Many parents fear that by learning signs (or another form of communication) their child won't speak.  However, according to research, children who learn signs are sometimes even more motivated to try new words!  By pairing spoken language with signs, a child is being exposed to language both visually and auditorily; signing would not be used in isolation.  And often times, as speech begins to emerge, signs can fade.  However, they are always there to fall back on when needed!

My child has tantrums...will signing help?
Many children with speech or language delays can experience frustration when unable to communicate successfully.  This frustration can quickly turn into tantruming, crying, or self-injurious behaviors.  By giving your child some simple signs to communicate his needs or desires, such as being hungry, being finished with an activity, or wanting to listen to music, his tendency to get upset very well may decrease.  Often, the inability to communicate effectively is the root of the frustration, and by alleviating that with sign, more appropriate behaviors can surface.

My child has limited motor skills...is signing still recommended?
Children with disabilities that affect their fine or gross motor skills, such as cerebral palsy, can benefit from signing.  While all signs taught are directly from American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary, as you work with your child to learn, you also learn your child's approximations of the signs.  Most children adapt signs to whatever they are physically able to do, so even though some signs may not be exact, the important part is that your child is learning to communicate.

Who Can Use Sign Language?

Children with all types of special needs can benefit from learning ASL, including:

  • autism
  • Down Syndrome
  • apraxia
  • speech and language delays
  • children in hospital settings
  • English Language Learners
  • other disabilities

Take a look at how learning sign language can help your child:

Signing with Children with Apraxia

Some children with apraxia can become so discouraged by their difficulties speaking that they can stop trying to talk altogether. Research suggests that signing with children with apraxia is meant to be used as a bridge to learning and using verbal speech – not to substitute for it.

  • Signing allows children with apraxia a whole new way to communicate effectively, even while learning how to improve speech sounds.
  • Signing helps clarify words that are not yet clearly spoken.
  • Signing offers children the confidence that they will be understood. This confidence can encourage them to learn and practice using more spoken words.
  • Signing gives a child visual “cues” about the words or ideas he is trying to voice.
  • Signing slows down the rate of speech, allowing the child more time to form words or sounds they struggle with.
  • Signing gives children more opportunities to practice their expressive language skills; by using signs, a child can form complete ideas and thoughts they may not have the speech skills to do yet.

Signing with Children with Autism

Many children with autism struggle with speech and language, as well as with their social skills.  Research suggests that sign language offers children with autism extraordinary communicative, social, and behavioral benefits (Berkell, 1992).

  • Signing eases communication difficulties by offering an alternative method to speech.
  • Signing has also been shown to help learn spoken language at a faster rate.
  • Signing encourages eye contact.
  • Signing motivates increased communication. Children can express their needs and wishes in a language that is easily understood and universally accepted.
  • Signing improves adaptive behavior by reducing frustration, crying, tantrums, aggression, and self-injurious behavior.
  • Signing improves self-esteem and self-confidence.

Signing with Children with Down Syndrome

Often, children with Down Syndrome struggle with speech and language from an early age, however a desire to communicate can be strong right from the beginning!  By teaching a child sign language, he can satisfy that desire when spoken language is developing.

  • Signing encourages children to communicate with peers and caregivers even as they are practicing and perfecting speech skills.
  • Signing attaches meaning to words by providing a visual representation paired with the sound.
  • Signing provides children with a means to communicate with their peers, allowing for more social opportunities.
  • Signing increases self-esteem.
  • Signing may be used even after children have overcome speech delays, to provide emphasis for spoken words, or clarify meanings when spoken words are difficult for others to understand.
  • Signing is not a substitute for speech; most vocabulary that children sign will later be spoken aloud.

Signing and Other Special Needs:

  • signing with children in hospital settings can provide them with a means of communication when verbal speech is not an option
  • signing with English Language Learners gives children a visual representation of the words they are learning, as well as give them a tool to communicate with others who speak English
  • signing can also provide children learning to read with a visual representation of written words and letters

What the Experts Are Saying...

“Using ASL not only provides family and extended family members with a   unified system of communication, but also offers childcare providers a standardized system to better serve the needs of all children.”   
Dr. Joseph Garcia, Author of “Sign with you Baby”

“We use ASL due to the fact that some of or children will be using signs to communicate for a very long time. It is MOST rewarding to see all the children in the classroom, both children with special needs and typically developing children, using signs to communicate with each other.”   
Kelly Kirchmar, MA, CCC-SLP, Speech and Language Pathologist

 “Based on our experiences of introducing ASL to hearing children over the last five years, we have found ASL to be an incredible bridge between receptive language and verbal language. It is a wonderful tool for children leaning English as a second language and for introducing a second language spoken language. We have also found ASL to be an effective connection for children moving through infant, toddler, and preschool groupings. By having the consistency of ASL throughout our entire program the children and staff can easily communicate through recognized signs.”  
MaryJo Dostal, Director of Union Bay Children’s Center

What the Research Says

It has been proven that sign language can benefit many children with a special needs. 
Some of what the research says about signing with children with special needs:

  • verbal communication is actually accelerated when pairing sign language and speech together (Edelson)
  • by using signs, children with special need have a means to build and practice their expressive language, even while developing their speech (Gretz)
  • using signs stimulates the same part of the brain that speech does; when pairing speech with signs, the brain is being stimulated by two sources! (Edelson)
  • sign language offers children with autism extraordinary communicative, social, and behavioral benefits (Berkell, 1992)
  • sign language encourages eye contact and attention to movements well before children may be able to coordinate all the movements required for speech (Donovan)
  • by giving children who are non-verbal a way to communicate, frustration levels decrease (Gretz)
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