Sign Language: Panacea or Pain in the Neck

14 Oct

A while back, a mother who reads my other blog emailed me this question that I asked to hold until I had heard more opinions on it.  Here is the question:

My son is four and has very limited verbal ability. I have been told to use sign language with him, but I’ve heard that some people think it is the greatest thing ever while others dislike it intensely. I’m very conflicted about what to do.


My first piece of advice is to work with your child’s speech therapist. They know your child’s verbal ability better than a bunch of strangers on the internet. If it is something you are dedicated to or interested in, pursue it with the help of the speech therapist. It would be very confusing to your son for you to be going full-speed on sign language at home while the speech therapist is using other methods with your child.

Second, you need to decide how you are going to use the sign language. This sounds like a simple idea, but you have to remember, that sign language is only functional if both people in a conversation know it. Think of it this way, I am American and I speak English (and no other languages). If I approach a non-English speaker and just begin speaking English and they speak in their language but neither of us knows the others’ language, are we really communicating? If you want sign language to be your son’s sole means of communication you need to know that. Similarly, if you only want to use it as a building block, you need to know that as well.

Third, not all children with autism can learn sign language. You will have many, many people tell you it’s a panacea, that it will unlock doors for your child because it did for theirs. My daughter was never able to learn more than two signs and we’ve stopped sign language as a result. Remember, all individuals with autism are different with different strengths and abilities. It’s okay to start sign language with hope, but don’t let it lead to depression if it doesn’t work as well for your child.

Fourth, you are going to get tons of different opinions on sign language (and any other autism related topic) because of the differences in individuals with autism but the only opinion that matters is your own and that of the professionals working with your child. Most therapists are willing to try but you have to be willing to listen to them honestly if they feel your child might not be ready or is now confused. If you don’t have a united front, your child will be confused and not learn much of anything.

Finally, if sign language doesn’t work for you, or you decide not to pursue it, don’t think you have given up! There are many types of augmentative speech devices that can help. And there are programs that can help you to get them at little or very reduced cost. Even if sign language isn’t a panacea, you don’t have to pursue to the point it is a pain in the neck, you can move on to something else!


Good Luck with your decision!





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