Written by Grandview Kids’ Autism Therapy Team
Using sign language can be an excellent way to promote language and social interaction for children experiencing a delay in their communication skills.
Using Sign Language for Children with Delayed Speech or Language Skills
Benefits of using signs
- Reduce frustration: sign language can give your child a way to express themselves and may reduce frustration or challenging behaviours that can result when they do not have another way to communicate.
- Teaches the power of communication: For example: “if I use the sign for ‘more’ I can make Mommy or Daddy jump up and get me more blueberries. This is pretty great!” This can be very helpful for children with Autism or children who are reluctant to communicate.
- Increase understanding: when parents model a sign AND say the word, this helps build your child’s understanding. For example: pairing the sign for diaper and the word ‘diaper’ gives your child another “tool” to build their understanding.
- Teaches imitation: copying actions, gestures, sounds, or words is an extremely important skill for language development. Teaching signs is one way to work on imitation in a motivating and rewarding way.
- Builds foundational language skills: children often demonstrate an improvement in their nonverbal language (gestures, pointing, giving an object, leading by the hand) before we see an improvement in their verbal language.
- Takes away the pressure: children can often feel the pressure we unintentionally put on them when we are so motivated to hear those first words. Using signs can take the pressure off using words. Sometimes this is just what your child needs to start using words!
If my child is using signs it will slow down their language development.
My child can speak. They’re just lazy. I don’t want to teach them the “lazy” way to communicate.
Using sign language means we are “giving up” on speaking.
Here’s the TRUTH
If your child could easily use words they would already be doing this. Children who aren’t talking aren’t lazy. Using language is tough for a lot of kids! Using alternative communication means (including sign language) does NOT prevent your child from learning language. In fact, it may support your child in learning to speak. We want to think of using signs as being a bridge to support your child in reaching their full communication potential.
Tips to start introducing sign language at home
1. Pick a few signs: You do not have to use a sign for every word you say. In fact, picking too many signs can be overwhelming. Aim to start with 2-4 meaningful signs.
2. Always say the word while you’re modelling the sign.
3. Learn the sign you want to teach your child. There are lots of online resources and videos available to help you learn the signs. It is ok to adapt this sign if it is too difficult for your child to do.
For example, the sign for “water” involves tapping your mouth with 3 fingers. Your child might start to tap their mouth with their whole hand – this is great progress!
4. Incorporate these signs into routines.
For example, think of familiar routines that already happen each day in your home such as getting dressed, brushing hair and eating a meal. Pick 1 sign that you could teach your child within these different routines such as ‘get dressed’ or ‘eat’ and use the sign and the word each day during these routines.
5. Use communication temptations to motivate your child to communicate.
For example, place a favourite food item or small toy in a clear container with a lid to encourage your child to request ‘help’ or ‘open’. When giving your child a snack and drink, only give them a little bit at a time so your child will be motivated to request ‘more’ or ‘juice.’ Place a favourite item on a shelf where your child can see it but can’t reach it to encourage him/her to request ‘help’ or the name of the object such as ‘baby’ or ‘puppy.’
6. Model, model, model: your first job is to just MODEL the signs with no expectation for your child to copy. You may have to model the signs for a few weeks before you get a response. Model and WAIT to give them an opportunity to copy without any pressure for them to do so.
7. Gently help your child to sign: after you have modelled the sign MANY times you can begin to gently help your child make the sign.
For example, you may guide their hands together for the sign “more.”
8. Tell everyone about the signs: make sure you inform anyone looking after your child of the signs they are using and what they look like (they might not look exactly the same as you or I would make the signs). This can include Grandparents, babysitters, daycare providers, and other therapists. It is very exciting and rewarding for your child when a new person recognizes and responds to their sign!
Ideas of signs to start with
- Signs that can be used across activities. Examples might include: more, open, help, eat, all done.
- Highly motivating signs. What is your child’s favourite thing? Examples might include the name of a favourite toy.
- Signs of toys, foods, objects, or activities that your child enjoys on a daily basis. Examples might include: ball, bear, baby, book, milk, water, juice, cookie, or sing.
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