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Teaching Children With Autism to Communicate Using American Sign Language

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 5/26/2015

Communication with a child with autism is the key to their success. With all of the factors working against teachers, how can they teach better communication? Using American Sign Language could be the answer!

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    Anyone who has worked with an autistic child understands the importance of helping them to improve their communication skills. When they can’t express their needs or wants, they feel extremely frustrated, which of course increases the level of frustration felt by their parents and teachers. So, what can teachers do to help autistic children improve their communication skills?

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    The Benefits of Visual and Verbal Learning

    Off On Their Own... According to a fact sheet developed by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at SUNY-Albany,

    “Students with autism or PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) learn better and are less confused when information is presented visually as well as verbally. Interaction with non-disabled peers is also important, for these students provide models of appropriate language, social, and behavior skills. To overcome frequent problems in generalizing skills learned at school, it is very important to develop programs with parents, so that learning activities, experiences, and approaches can be carried over into the home and community."

    Although this sounds easy enough to implement, there are factors working against the teachers who are trying to implement them. The English language is primarily a verbal language, yet information should be presented both visually and verbally. When a child diagnosed with autism is lagging behind peers in language and conversational skills, it becomes extremely difficult for them to interact with other students and for those students to interact with them. To combat this, teachers often use assistive devices and tools in school--but the price and training required with these tools make it difficult and expensive to have crucial carry-over in the home.

    So with these inhibitors to teaching success, how can teachers of autistic students teach them better communication?

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    The Benefits of ASL

    Thirteen different research studies* have been conducted that indicate that using American Sign Language (ASL) with a child with autism could be the answer. Results of these studies showed:

    • increased vocalizations
    • Signs were mastered and were used in the appropriate context, across different settings and with different adult
    • Self-stimulation decreased
    • Better communication was achieved for most autistic children – even if they were labeled mute
    • Sign language was superior to other communication systems for increased vocalization and mastered items for most autistic children

    So why do ASL signs work? By incorporating American Sign Language, by saying and signing the word together, information is presented both verbally and visually.

    Many signs are even iconic in nature, so they look like the actual object you are referring to. Interacting with non-disabled peers is easier when autistic children and their peers both know some sign (which they can learn together.) American Sign Language is very quickly learned by non-disabled children and they really enjoy learning it! Last, sign language can be easily carried over at home – as it’s FREE! Teachers can just show the parents what signs they’re teaching.

    The results of these studies show that better communication can be achieved with many autistic children just by incorporating a few American Sign Language signs into their day. They will be able to communicate their needs and wants, they will be less frustrated, and therefore, their parents and teachers will be less frustrated as well.

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    *Research Studies

    Reinforcement Unlimited. American Sign Language v. Picture Exchange Communication System in the Development of Verbal Language in Children With Autism.

    Carbone Clinic Research and Publications.

    Karr EG and Kologinsky E. Acquisition of Sign Language by Autistic Children II: Spontaneity and Generalization Effects. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis 16:297-314, 1983.

    Siple P and Fisher, SD, Editors. Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research, Volume 2. Chapter 13: Manual Communication and Autism: Factors Relating to Sign Language Acquisition, by Bonvillian and Blackburn. University of Chicago Press.