11 January 2013

Sign Language and Autism: Practical Applications

This post is meant to serve as a practical guide to using sign language with a child who has autism.  As an instructional assistant in an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) classroom, I had the opportunity and responsibility of introducing sign language to nonverbal students with autism. I've seen sign used successfully in special education classrooms with a variety of age and skill levels, but the protocol detailed here was for a past student of mine, a six-year-old with normal hearing and no verbal skills. To read more about his experience and progress with language, click here. Otherwise, read on for more on sign language protocol!

1. Making the Connection: For many children with autism, the basic concept of language is a difficult one to grasp due to its abstract nature. To make the idea more accessible, you need to demonstrate that language has a concrete and practical use: that it can be used to request what he or she wants. Manding practice is an effective way to instill this concept. If the child already uses Picture Exchange Communication (PECS) effectively, I suggest pairing the signs with PECs to start. To introduce your first sign, choose an object that the child finds very reinforcing, like a favorite food, drink or toy. Sit with the child and let him have the desired item for a while; then, taking the item in your hand so that it's still visible, demonstrate or form the sign with the child's hands to request the item back. Doing this in repetitive sessions several times a day helps reinforce the idea of language as a transaction, a means of communicating one's needs. Once this idea is understood, more signs can be added to the repertoire, along with an understanding of the other uses of language and communication.

2. Errorless Teaching: Even if you don't follow ABA protocol in other aspects of a child's education, errorless teaching is still particularly useful when teaching a student a new sign. This may require, if necessary, shaping the child's hands into the correct form before he or she signs it incorrectly. Ensuring the child does the sign to the best of his or her ability the first time will prevent him from mixing up signs, which also curbs frustration. The speed with which a child can use sign language to request what he wants is one of the major benefits, so keeping it quick and easy at the start will help the child feel positive about using sign and help avoid behaviors due to confusion.

3. Specificity and Concreteness: The most important part about using sign language with a child who is autistic is to start out in a very concrete and specific set of signs. Specialists believe that one of the reasons why so many autistic students are successful with sign language is because the visual and kinetic nature of signing (as well as the iconic nature of some signs) makes language less abstract than in spoken form. So while it may seem prudent to teach a child to sign "more," a better move would be to teach him the signs for specific food or drink items like "apple" or "water." It sounds tedious at first, but it's the key to getting your student to think on a linguistic level in which he or she understands that things have names and can be requested using those names; conversely, learning a sign like "more" might result in a vaguer understanding-- e.g. this sign means "give me what I want" which will eventually end in frustration for both parties.

4. Pairing with Speech Sounds: If your student is hearing and has no other speech impairments, you may find that he or she naturally pairs sounds with signs. When beginning to teach signs, saying the word and using the sign simultaneously will also illustrate to the student that there are many ways to ask for something. Paring beginning sounds with signs can also be integrated into imitation-based target questions during instruction time.

5. Data Collection (for Teachers and Instructional Assistants): If you're a teacher looking for a way to collect quantitative data on a student's progress with sign language, I suggest the following. American Sign Language is a full language with its own vocabulary, syntax and grammar; therefore, even if your student is only utilizing one-sign phrases, there are morphological components that make up every sign, and can be measured. These parameters are: palm orientation, movement, handshape and location. For my aforementioned student, I created a spreadsheet listing each sign and gave him a checkmark or an "X" each category depending on how accurate his (unassisted) signing was, then converted these into percentages. For example, if the student signed "water" using the right location, movement and palm orientation, but had the wrong handshape (say, 4 fingers instead of 3), I'd mark down a 75% accuracy rate for that sign. For a two-handed sign like "soda" I'd take both the left and right hands into account in the calculation.

If you're thinking of introducing sign language to a child with autism and have questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments or email us at info@redeafined.com!

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