|Signed Speech for Children with Developmental Disorders
Sign language is a great way to communicate with each other. All types of people are now using sign
language as a form of communication. A child who is not verbal, can use signing to express his or her
Teaching a child with a developmental disability sign language with speech will accelerate their ability to
speak. One possible reason is that both forms of communication stimulate the same area of the brain.
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).
Signing is useful for children with autism and other behavioral disorders. Many atypical behaviors
associated with autism and other developmental disabilities, such as aggression, tantrums, self-injury,
anxiety, and depression, are often caused by the inability to communicate to others.
Speech allows the child to communicate using signs and may stimulate verbal language skills. When
teaching to use sign language the child may concentrate their attention on social gestures and turn
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 child will be motivated to use the signs to
communicate needs. Learning to sign may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few months to teach
the first sign; but as the child acquires more and more signs, they will be much easier and faster to learn.
Teaching sign language to children 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.
Benefits of Signed Speech
Signs can be used at different levels.
• As individual words
• To highlight key words in a sentence.
• To sign all the words in a sentence.
• To convey all of the grammatical information in sentences including word endings and verb tenses.
• Understanding vocabulary and concepts.
• Learning to say words.
• Using sentences and developing word order.
• Communication and social skills.
Many children with speech, language and communication difficulties may have and underlying problem
with processing auditory information. They take a longer time to understand spoken information than
most children. Using signed speech when you are talking to a child provides them with 2 input channels to
process information: auditory and visual. Signs last longer than words, so the child has much greater
opportunity to successfully understand the message. In addition, when you use signing, you naturally
slow your rate of spoken speech down, which allows more time for the child to process the information
and think about how to respond.
The initial progress in recognizing and producing signs can be very slow. Once children understand the
process of 'learning how to learn' signs, they usually make rapid progress, so it is worth the initial high
level of input. Some children need help learning how to copy and make signs. The adult may need to
assist in physically positioning fingers, as motor planning and sequencing skills may be poor. Signed
speech is very good for promoting fine motor skills development.
Many children with speech, language and communication difficulties need to be taught how to focus
sustain their attention control successfully. Some children may not be able to filter the 'block out'
information: learning environment may have to be adapted by reducing external stimuli.
When you use signing it is a natural way of encouraging and developing eye contact and looking skills,
using signing helps to focus the child's attention on the speaker. Using signing makes the adult more
aware of correct positioning and physical proximity to enhance learning and communication skills: it
encourages the adult to position the child so that they can see his or her face. The adult is now in a
position to monitor and encourage looking and listening skills. Children using signing also more naturally
look at each other, which supports interaction in paired or group work.
By accompanying new vocabulary with signed speech, a child's vocabulary retention and accessing skills
can be improved significantly and so can their confidence in making verbal contributions.
Children with speech, language and social communication difficulties often need extra support in learning
the rules and language required for effective social interaction. Teaching children to sign as they speak
provides them with secure means of successfully communicating with peers and adults.*
*Information provided by: Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. Center of Autism, and Georgiana MacAnley PGSS Using Visual Support
Baby Sign Language
The first year of life sets the stage for the development of language. While most babies will not utter their
first words or sentences until the second year of life, the foundation for language, including sound
perception and production, communicative gestures, and non-linguistic cognition, is pre-speech
"conversations” for babies and their parents.
When parents speak and read to a child they foster language development by providing form & structure,
ways in which words are put together, and how to distinguish units of speech. Parents help their infant
develop babbling, vocal turn-taking supports communication development. Focusing on the objects and
topics that are of interest to the child parents provide appropriate feedback and verbal labels to their
Sign language training in infancy has been used as a vehicle for parental support of pre-speech
development. Sign language uses a manual type of communication but provides the same language
foundation used in oral communication. Signing is thought to be easier than oral communication for
young infants to master.
Sign language learning is meant to teach infants to express their thoughts. Like verbal language, sign
language uses symbols to represent ideas. The connection between the sign and the object in mind
might be easier for the young child to learn because, as symbols, signs resemble the object in mind more
closely than would a word. The use of symbolic gestures is thought to provide parents with an opportunity
to create more meaningful language learning interaction between themselves and their infants. For
example, when a pre-lingual child points out a dog to the mother, the mother says and signs the word for
dog, and then shows her child how to produce the sign by manipulating the child's hands. This helps the
child go beyond pointing to produce the symbol for "dog". Early signing may advance language
development based on evidence that the frequency of care giver-infant interaction predicts vocabulary
and cognitive growth. These methods give children an advantage in early vocal word production.
Baby sign language programs, books and videos claim that using gestural signs to communicate with pre-
lingual infants promotes language acquisition, reduces frustration, increases cognitive functioning, and
improves early communication. A substantial number of programs and products are available to train
parents to communicate with their pre-lingual baby using gestural signing. Claims of benefits range from
advancements in language development and literacy to increased intimacy between parent and infant
and decreased infant frustration.
Information provided by University of Ottawa
J. Cyne topshee Johnston
University of Waterloo