Helping Individuals with Autism Communicate Using Sign Language

CC BY by daveynin

This is the first in a series about using sign language to  help individuals with autism communicate functionally.

A characteristic feature of an autism diagnosis is impaired functional communication. Children with autism often develop language later and some do not develop language at all. Of those who do begin using verbal language, many fail to use language functionally unless an adapted intervention is in place for the child. Instead many children with autism simply learn to repeat words and sounds. This is known as echolalia.

According to,

« echolalia is the immediate or delayed echoing or repetition of whole, unanalyzed expressions or reciprocation… Many individuals with autism develop speech. Unfortunately, not all children with autism develop functional speech… Common speech abnormalities include echolalia (immediate or delayed repeating of information), unconventional word use, and unusual tone, pitch, and articulation. Echolalia occurs in approximately 85% of children with autism who eventually develop speech ».

In order to teach children with autism to use functional language to communicate rather than simply forming sounds and words in repetition, it is essential to guide the child appropriately using an augmentative communication system. There are various options.

Many families and professionals use sign language with children with autism in order to give the child a way to communicate gesturally. The child learns use to use a repertoire of simple, adapted signs to mand (request), tact (label items in his or her environment) receptively identify items in his or her environment (teacher uses a sign and verbal prompt to request that the child select a particular item from an array of items). Signs are faded out as quickly as possible and replaced with spoken words.

« Using sign language specifically as an alternative communication form has often raised fears for families that if this method is employed for children not yet developing verbal expression, verbal expressive language may never develop. Research within the field of speech and language pathology, as well as alternative and augmentative communication, has conclusively proven otherwise. I have found that language and communication is less about the production of sounds and words and more about the expression of shared meanings within primary relationships. It stands to reason that the creative process is critical to language development and is more acutely demonstrated in the sharing of experience and ideas than of the actual verbal production of words. Again, words without meaning lack the hallmarks of communication. Therefore, children who use sign language as a means to communicate have the ability to express their inner ideas and other cognitive processes with another. » (

The goal is always to teach the child to communicate functionally rather than simply imitating sounds and words haphazardly.

Resource for information about using sign language with ASD learners can be found at Signing Autistic Lives (