According to the Autism Society of America autism is now considered the fastest-growing developmental disability. This disability affects approximately 1-1.5 million individuals in the United States. For many individuals with autism their physical and cognitive development appears normal during infancy and early childhood. However, usually between the ages of two and three parents begin noticing a delay in speech production, as well as avoidance of social contact. There are currently no standardized medical tests to determine if an individual is autistic. A battery of screenings and observations must occur in order for a professional to diagnose autism.
Autism and the individual child
Autism and the accompanying symptoms vary greatly for each individual. Autism is only one of the disabilities that exists on the Pervasive Developmental Disorders spectrum, and implies variations in functioning for each individual diagnosed with a disorder on the spectrum. Other disabilities on this spectrum include Asperger's Syndrome, which typically includes higher functioning individuals with impaired socialization skills, and the more debilitating Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.
These pervasive developmental disabilities impair many areas of development including socialization, cognitive functioning, and physical ability. Autism tends to greatly impair the individual's ability to develop speech, as well as to interact socially (and appropriately).
The abilities of those with autism vary greatly. Some people with autism are able to acquire spoken language and are taught to use that language appropriately. More often alternative communication systems are necessary. Depending on the individual's level of functioning, many different techniques have been used to encourage communication. Assistive technology, picture exchange communication systems, and American Sign Language have all been used effectively for people with autism.
Sign Language Options for Children with Autism
Those with autism, who cognitively understand conventional communication systems, can benefit greatly from acquiring a sign system. There are various signing options, depending on the individual's level of functioning and overall ability. Those that exhibit higher cognitive functioning can learn traditional American Sign Language (ASL). American Sign Language has unique syntax and grammar, entirely different from the English language; however, it may be easier for a person with autism to learn because of its visually compact structure. Fewer signs are necessary when signing in ASL versus when using Signed English or spoken English. ASL utilizes facial expressions, body language, and contextual cues more than in English, where words are depended on to communicate expression.
Signed English is another option when introducing a communication system to an individual with autism. The difference between signed English and American Sign Language is that signed English tries to maintain the same grammatical structure and syntax as spoken English. Signed English can also promote spoken language acquisition by teaching the individual the pragmatics of the English language. By pairing the sign with the spoken word individuals can begin to associate objects with their English title. This sign system works primarily with physical objects. It is much more challenging using Signed English to teach abstract signs (i.e. thoughts, feelings, etc.) as they can not be seen.
Modified sign language is also used often for individuals with autism. Modified sign language uses conventional American Sign Language signs but tailors the signs to the physical and cognitive ability of the person using sign language. This signing system has many benefits for lower functioning individuals who are unable to acquire conventional signing skills. While it may be difficult for the individual to sign "bathroom" because of the dexterity necessary to place the thumb between the first and second fingers, they may be able to place their thumb on the outside of the first finger, and from that point forward that specific gesture would indicate that they need to use the bathroom, replacing the conventional ASL sign. Imagine the freedom and pride your child will feel with the extra independence achieved!
Autism augmented with sign language - added benefits
Teaching sign language to those with autism has many benefits, the least of which is providing the individual with a "voice" to communicate their wants and feelings to others. It is common among those with autism to display disruptive and self-injurious behaviors, often because of their frustration in their inability to communicate with others. Learning sign language allows these individuals an outlet to communicate appropriately and in a conventional manner, greatly reducing one's frustration.
There is typically a noticeable decrease in the rates of abusive and destructive behaviors once a communication system is in place. Above all, teaching a sign communication method opens the door for human interaction and socialization. While those with autism typically do not seek out opportunities for socialization, they will now have the means to do so since they possess a conventional communication system.
For more research information on the benefits of babies, toddlers, and children with autism using ASL, please visit: http://www.babies-and-sign-language.com/autism.html. For a helpful easy-to-follow signing glossary, please visit: Free Child Sign Language Glossary