Just the other day I was out and about and met another mom with a child on the spectrum, something that seems to happen quite often these days. We got to talking a bit about some of our experiences and one item she talked about really stuck with me: Sign Language.
It was kind of one of those moments where someone starts talking about an old memory that you had kind of forgotten about. I found that sort of “yes” moment as she talked and I could personally relate to exactly what she was referring to. She had actually mentioned that sign language for her son was a huge step in getting him to communicate verbally. It sounds like for her family they had fully learned to talk in sign language. She also mentioned that it eventually led him to start speaking, to the point where he no longer needed sign language to communicate. It was an amazing thing to hear, and although our personal experience with sign language was not as involved as theirs seemed to be, it still got me thinking back to how much sign language contributed in evolving Damion’s communication skills as well.
We too incorporated sign language into a lot of our beginning communication efforts. Back when Damion was non-verbal (ages 2-3.5) and was attending speech therapy, I noticed that it was something that the speech therapist would often do alongside of saying the words. I wasn’t a huge fan of the sign language idea at first, as my goal for him was to speak verbally. She explained that sometimes those visual signals would help them process what you were saying, and she was right. So, we incorporated little bits of sign language into our communication with Damion as well. I’m not going to say that I know a lot of it, but the little bit I did learn seemed to help.
Fast forward a bit to Damion starting preschool. The teacher had mentioned to me that they played a YouTube video for Damion that he really loved and kept requesting it again and again. The video was of a little girl singing and signing about colors. It wasn’t long before he found other videos this same girl had made, and even some by other people. Things like “See it, say it, sign it” became a regular watch request at our home as it combined his love for songs, sign language, and the alphabet. These videos even became rewards for preferred behaviors. I would often sign the alphabet to him and he loved it so much that it became a way to pass the time when we had to wait for something (waiting has never been an easy task for Damion).
I’ve read other stories of autistic children that are along these lines as well. Sometimes directly to verbal communication is not an option for them. Sometimes they need a stepping stone. Sign language is not the only option for this, alternatives would be an AAC device or PECS or maybe another alternative you come up with yourself. Maybe using a variety of them would be helpful too. In some cases that stepping stone may be something that they need to continue using alongside verbal communication for a long time, or maybe it is something they can bridge themselves away from fairly quickly. Sign language is however the only one of those options that gets their bodies working as well, and studies have actually shown that sign language alongside speech therapy can actually help stimulate speech.
Damion himself never spoke in sign language, the specific hand movements for someone that needed help with fine motor skills were not easy for him to master. For a short point he did work on signing the alphabet song himself, but even that only lasted for a short while. The more verbal he became, the less I used any of the sign language with him. Eventually I didn’t have him requesting the ASL videos anymore either and after a while, the use of sign language worked its way out of our everyday lives.
Even though I never considered sign language to be a huge part of our story, I do still think it was an important part. We may have not become fully immersed like the mom that I spoke to where we could have full sign language conversations, but it was our stepping stone to our son becoming verbal as well. Every child is different and there are some who take onto sign language and end up keeping it as their primary form of communication, and although that may not be your ideal goal, I am sure it is better than the alternative. For those who may currently have a child who is non-verbal or is very limited in what they say, I would definitely recommend giving sign language a try.
Click on the links below to see some of Damion’s top 3 favorite sign language videos’: