Sign Language for People with Developmental Disabilities

This article is based on the information provided in 2001 by Dr. Benson Schaeffer, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon. He is internationally known for his work on sign language for the people with cognitive disabilities. A summary of the information and additional commentary are provided by Tim Weiss, former board member of the Alaska Alliance for Deaf Children and parent of a child who is both deaf and has autism.

Sign language is primarily used in communication with people who have hearing impairments. Sign language has also been used to teach people with developmental disabilities who have little or no communication skills.

Using Sign Language to Accelerate Speech Development

Teaching children with autism how to use sign language is not as common a practice today as in previous years, possibly due to an increase in the use of computerized communication systems and facilitated communication.

However, research suggests that teaching sign language via Total Communication (especially involving simultaneously produced signs and words) will likely accelerate a person’s ability to speak (Creedon, 1976; Kopchik, Rombach & Smilovitz, 1975; Larson, 1971; Miller & Miller, 1973). The idea of teaching sign language and speech simultaneously is sometimes referred to as Signed Speech.

Sign Language for People with Limited Communication

Sign language is useful for those individuals who have little or no verbal abilities or communication skills. It is not recommended for those who have a relatively large vocabulary.

Persons with a variety of functioning levels can be taught to use sign language. Many aberrant behaviors associated with autism and other developmental disabilities, such as aggression, tantrums, self-injury, anxiety, and depression, are often attributed to an inability to communicate to others. Signed speech may, at the very least, allow the person to communicate using signs and may stimulate verbal language skills.

Another common characteristic of individuals with autism is their inability to attend to the nonverbal, social gestures of others. When teaching a person to use sign language, another possible benefit may be the facilitation of their attentiveness to social gestures of others as well as of themselves.

Which Form(s) to Use?

There are several different forms of sign language. When implementing signed speech it is best to use the Signing Exact English or Signed English methods. This form of sign language uses the same syntax as spoken language and will help facilitate the use of syntactic rules of spoken language.

For example, a statement using both Signed English and speech would be: Look at the table. In contrast, the syntax of American Sign Language would be: Table look. Since the majority of people do not understand sign language, it may be ideal to use some form of picture system or computerized communication device in addition to signed speech to enable communication with those who do not understand signs.

How to Start Teaching Sign Language

When beginning a sign language program, it is best to start with signs expressing needs, such as the need to eat, drink, and use the toilet. In this way, the person will be motivated to use the signs to communicate needs. It may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few months to teach the first sign. But, as the person acquires more and more signs, it will be much easier and faster to learn new signs.

Learning to speak is usually accelerated by teaching sign language and speech at the same time. One possible reason is that both forms of communication stimulate the same area of the brain. PET scans, which measure the amount of activity occurring in the brain at a given time, indicate that the same area of the brain is activated when a person talks or when a person uses signs (Poizner, Klima & Bellugi, 1990).

Thus, when utilizing the signed speech method, the area of the brain involved in speech production is receiving stimulation from two sources (signing and speaking) rather than stimulation from one source (signing or speaking). Also, if there are problems with auditory processing, this form of communication should be unaffected.

Summary and Comments

In conclusion, teaching sign language to people with autism and other developmental disabilities does not interfere with learning to talk and evidence indicates that teaching sign language along with speech actually accelerates verbal communication. The book entitled Signed Speech Language Program for Nonverbal Students, written by B. Schaeffer, A. Raphael, and G. Kollinzas provides an excellent description of the steps needed to implement such a program.

Commentary: Dr. Schaeffer’s methods provide a valuable means of accelerating language and speech in children who are non-verbal. However, it is also necessary to provide an important caveat. The signed speech methods described above tend to be slower than the normal rate of speech. Sign language requires that a person maintain concentration on the person signing, while speech does not require as much focused attention. The problem occurs when a person with developmental disabilities also has little or no hearing, or (as is the case with some children with autism) may be screening out most auditory input. These children cannot stay focused long enough for you to convey a full thought using signed speech.

My son is both deaf and has autism. I first tried Signing Exact English and Signed English, but made very little progress. It wasn’t until we switched to American Sign Language with its highly compact grammatical structure that we started to make progress. American Sign Language (ASL) has its own independent grammar structure that is not based on English (it owes part of its origins to French Sign Language). ASL has the ability to convey an entire sentence in one combination gesture. It allows punctuation, tenses, modifiers, and several linguistic concepts (such as classifiers) that are not used in English, through body language and sign, to convey complex concepts at the same time. For example, you can modify a sign with your body position, body movement, speed of sign, eyebrows, mouth, head movement, etc., to convey numerous words at the same time.

The value of ASL becomes clear when you see a nonverbal child who does not respond to voice and has a short attention span. It is important for me to convey a full sentence in only a few seconds (or less) while my son is still looking. ASL is the only communication system that allows this sort of highly compact visual communication that can get through. As a child’s attention span or focus on auditory stimuli increases you may wish to consider moving more toward English order, however, it is necessary that some communication be started as soon as possible.

I have heard many professionals state that it is necessary to reinforce the dominant method of communication used in our society so the child can function independently in the future and that the dominant method should be started as early as possible. This is not what the research shows as being effective. Alternate forms of communication that are more appropriate to the current functioning ability of the child will greatly accelerate the learning of language and speed up the eventual acquisition of speech and writing in English. Rigidly teaching the accepted mode of adult communication may actually slow such a child’s communication progress.