Teaching Signing to Autistic Students: Benefits and Tips

The Benefits of Teaching Sign Language to Autistic Children

Autism is a term used for a very wide spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders. Children with autism often have difficulty communicating and lack social skills. These children may be unable to speak and as a result suffer from frustration and are often misunderstood. It is important for them to learn how to use a system of communication so that they can tell teachers and students what they need. There are many benefits to teaching signing to autistic children.

  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that effective communication skills can be taught to non-verbal autistic children through signing instruction.
  • Some autistic children are unable to talk even after there has been extensive work in speech and oral motor development. Therefore, teaching autistic students sign language can help these children with their communication needs.
  • Behavior may significantly improve as well since students will no longer feel frustration from being unable to verbalize needs and wants to others.
  • Autistic students respond well to gestures and hand moves as well. Teachers can prompt as they use signs to communicate with autistic students.
  • Sign language can be used to communicate the same thing in different languages. Therefore, this can help students who have parents and guardians who speak another language.
  • A child with autism may not be able to tell you when they are sick. Instead of them acting out because they can't tell you what is wrong, these children could tell someone what is wrong with them by signing.

Ways to Incorporate Sign Language Instruction in the Classroom

Teaching signing to autistic students can occur at various times within a classroom. The functioning level of the student makes a difference in the way sign language instruction is presented and used.

  • Students who have severe autism and are not able to talk can benefit from signing. It is important that they learn keywords so that they can communicate their needs. It is not necessary for them to use signs for every single word in a sentence. Using a short sign language command or two is sufficient. Teachers can discuss appropriate sign language words to use with a speech therapist that works with the child. Instruction should occur in the classroom during direct instruction. Students at this level would benefit from practicing one word at a time until they can master it. Severe autistic students should be practicing the new words they use throughout the day. It is important that they can sign appropriately to communicate their needs.
  • Students who function at a high level can usually communicate. However, it can still be beneficial for them to learn sign language so that they can communicate with students that are nonverbal. These students may be able to practice a few words at a time. It can be introduced during individual instruction or as a group activity. It is important that these students practice signing words regularly so that they do not forget the words they are learning.

Teachers may need to learn sign language to work with autistic students. They can practice the language by getting sign language books that have pictures of different hand signals. The library may carry these types of books. In addition, a teacher may be able to get tapes and DVDs on signing.