Article: The Joy of Signing with an Autistic Child

The Joy of Signing With an Autistic Child

submitted by Sheri L., founder of www.autismneighborhood.org, from Carmel, CA.

April 2008

At my son’s 2-year check-up, he was nearly non-verbal and didn’t make eye contact with strangers. The pediatrician suggested that Charlie might have autism. Immediately, my internal voice said, “That’s it. He has autism.” It just made sense. We proceeded to have several evaluations, including a free evaluation from our local school district. It was during this evaluation that an educator recommended Signing Time. Desperate for an effective way to communicate with my son, I quickly purchased the videos and began watching them. I was thrilled to have this series as a resource. I was also deeply inspired by the Coleman family, who took the challenging situation of having a child with a disability and turned it into something positive that promotes awareness, understanding and education.

Shortly after Charlie and I watched the videos, we began signing to each other. One of my fondest memories from his childhood was the first time he signed flower! I don’t know which one of us was happier about our new way to connect and communicate, Charlie or myself. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for signing was met with deep concern from family members. They were worried that using signs would inhibit the use of spoken language. Out of respect for their concerns, I stopped learning new signs but continued to use our favorite signs, such as milk, flower and shoes. I was compelled to find out more about signing and to provide my family with the reassurance they needed that it was okay to sign with my son.

We decided that we wanted another opinion about his diagnosis, so we made an appointment to have a comprehensive evaluation at a major medical center with a clinic specializing in autism. I thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity to have experts back up my enthusiasm for signing. Unfortunately, we left the evaluation with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and with the advice not to use sign language. I was dismayed, and I felt certain that this was advice that had no basis, only bias.

In May of 2003, we began consulting with developmental experts in the field of autism, including Emily Rubin, co-author of Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support (SCERTS) Model and Lisa deFaria, LCSW, a DIR®/Floortime practitioner. Much to my delight, they both supported the use of signing with our son! As Emily pointed out, the National Research Council 2001 book “Educating Children With Autism” referenced research showing that signing is an effective tool in communicating with children with autism. Lisa shared with us that improving my son’s back-and-forth gestural communication was hugely important on his path to becoming an effective communicator. After talking with them about their research, I finally felt comfortable signing with my son and I convinced my somewhat skeptical family that it was not only okay to sign with him but helpful as well.

As Charlie increased his sign language vocabulary, we used signs in a playful and mutually enjoyable manner. This positive approach increased his willingness to use signs and gestures to communicate. Learning signs also required a great deal of patience. His motor planning abilities are somewhat challenged, so it took him awhile to attempt some of the more complex signs. We quickly realized that making the sign perfectly isn’t as important as how it can be used as an effective tool to communicate a message. When our son uses a modified sign or makes up his own sign, we view it as an opportunity to reinforce his confidence in his ability to communicate effectively.

With our family focusing on developmentally based, intensive and early treatment, Charlie became an effective verbal communicator, and we continue using sign language and informal gestures as a part of our daily communication with each other.

It has been a joy watching Charlie evolve with help from Signing Time. As he began to learn more signs, I watched his fine motor skills and confidence slowly improve. When he became verbal, I silently thanked Rachel and Two Little Hands Productions as we sat down and rolled a ball between our legs to one another like two children do on Signing Time: My First Signs. This was another moment for our family to celebrate in our son’s growth. I am happy and proud to say that Charlie recently mastered the ASL alphabet, which enables us to enjoy fingerspelling words to each other. Watching Rachel sign has also helped me become a more effective communicator as I now use more signs and gestures to support my own spoken language.

I view signing as a wonderful opportunity to help children become increasingly effective communicators, which benefits the entire family! I also think that if a child is able to develop into a verbal communicator, that signing will only serve to speed this process along. If a child is never able to speak due to their individualized, neurological difference, then there is all the more reason to have a gestural communication system in place. I am thrilled that more research is becoming available to support a family’s choice to sign with their child who has autism. It is my hope that the antiquated idea that signing with a child who has autism may inhibit speech is not only dispelled, but that in its place every family who has a child with autism is encouraged to try signing with their child.

Today, at 6 1/2 years old, Charlie regularly chooses a Signing Time video for his 30 minutes of daily TV time. Rachel has been an inspiration to me as a parent of a child with special needs. I too have a desire to help other families and individuals who are affected by autism, and recently started a non-profit organization called Autism Neighborhood. We interviewed a cross section of experts in autism, including researchers from the Yale Childhood Study Center, Stephen Shore, (an adult with autism who co-authored Autism for Dummies), and many other experts, families and authors in the field of autism. We are launching a site in late April that will house information on recognizing the signs of autism, best practices for establishing communication with children with autism and other resources. Please visit us at Autismneighborhood.org to view our video library. If you find our website useful, please share the link with your friends and family!