March 15, 2017

CC BY-NC by elyse patten

Adapted sign language can be a very valuable tool when teaching non-verbals learners on the autism spectrum to communicate functionally. For non-verbal children on the autism spectrum, the signs that are put in place are « adapted signs » meaning they are based on American or British sign language signs but made simpler. This may involve teaching signs without movement and teaching signs that have a « referrent », meaning one hand is in physical contact with the other hand or another body part when making the sign rather than a « floating » sign.

Sometimes parents fear putting in place an adapted signing program for their child with autism. They typically fear that the child will learn to use sign language and use it consistently instead of verbal language. However, research shows the opposite to be true.

In a Verbal Behavior program, signs are often used to teach non-verbal learners at first. Gradually, signs are paired with verbal approximations, then full words. Finally, when the child is ready and using words fluently, the signs are gradually faded out. Sometimes children fade out their use of signs independently.

Sign language provides a visual cue for the child making it easier for him to remember the word he needs to say to request or label an item once he begins speaking. Children with autism tend to be visual learners and research indicates that the visual cue provided when using a sign helps the individual with autism retrieve the word needed.

Many families who have been trying to teach their non-verbal children on the autism spectrum through verbal imitation and repetition alone are pleasantly surprised by the tremendous progress their children make verbally once they use sign language.

A parent who wishes to remain anonymous shared this with Autism Daily Newscast,

« I was very hesitant to put adapted sign language in place with my son, fearing that he would not develop verbal speech. Our greatest goal for him was for him to learn to speak. We couldn’t wait to hear his voice ! After several months of trying to teach him to speak using more traditional methods of sound repetition and oral motor exercises, we agreed to put an adapted sign language program in place for him with an ABA VB professional. He began using some single words to request his preferred foods and toys in just three months and we are thrilled ! Now we are moving forward in his program and teaching him to use simple verb and noun combinations ».



About the author 

Alix Strickland

Alix Strickland, BCaBA is an applied behavior specialist and founder and director of the Le Chemin ABA VB Learning Center for children with autism and other special needs in Paris, France. She is known as the « Green Behavior Specialist » because she uses natural cleansers and organic foods at her center in addition to making a lot of her own DIY, upcycled therapy materials. She coaches families and professionals in using ABA and Verbal Behavior strategies in France and abroad. Her website is

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