Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Sign language was first developed as a means of communication for hearing-impaired individuals. Sign language has also been used to teach people with developmental disabilities who have little or no communication skills. Teaching autistic children 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 com-munication systems. However, research suggests that teaching sign language along with speech will likely accelerate a person’s ability to speak (Creedon, 1976; Kopchick, Rombach, & Smilovitz, 1975; Larson, 1971; Miller & Miller, 1973). Teaching sign language and speech at the same time is often referred to as Signed Speech, Simultaneous Communication, or Total 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. Furthermore, 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, tantrumming, 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. 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.
There are several different forms of sign language; and when implementing Signed Speech, it is best to use the ‘Signing Exact English’ or “Signed English" method. This form of sign language uses the same syntax as spoken language, and this method 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 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 the signs.
When beginning a sign language program, it is best to start with signs expressing basic 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. In addition, 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, they will be much easier and faster to learn.
As mentioned above, 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).
In conclusion, teaching sign language to people with autism and other developmental disabilities does not interfere with learning to talk; and there is research evidence indicating that teaching sign language along with speech will actually accelerate verbal communication.
Benson Schaeffer, Ph.D., has written an excellent book on Signed Speech. You can write to him to learn more about his book. Dr. Schaeffer’s address is: Emanuel Medical Office Bldg., 501 N. Graham; Suite 365, Portland, OR 97227.