Sign Language in the ASD Class

“Bilingualism of any languages (whether signed or spoken) is a great booster for brains. It enriches and enhances your cognitive processes: higher abstract and creative thinking, better problem-solving, greater cognitive flexibility, better listening skills, greater academic achievement.”

In my first year of teaching I worked in a treatment centre for dual-diagnosis students and with one student in particular who had both Autism and was Deaf. As one of my most behaviourally challenging students to this day, I struggled to find a balance between her PECS & Signing systems for her to communicatem meaningfully. The frustration she seemed to exhibit was the cause of something unimaginable to me and my staff. Thanks in part to an ASL-trained co-worker, I was able to learn a repetoire of sign language, and saw first hand how it positively affected the communication and language of the other students in the classroom.

Due to the huge impact of Baby Sign Language on early communication, many students are starting school with a basic knowledge of ASL. Using signs isn’t mandatory, nor is it applicable, for all non-verbal students with Autism. However, coupled with augmentative communication programs like THESE, ASL offers an opportunity to expand one’s communication skills and generalize across different environments and contexts.

Why teach Sign Language to Students with Autism?
  • Pairing a sign with an object creates an association in the mind that stimulates the speech-language parts of the brain
  • Reduces negative behaviours by increasing means of communication
  • Increase in social interaction and expression
  • Access, availability

The Other Side…

If 55% of our communication is non-verbal, body language actually does speak louder than words!
  • It can be confusing to the student to use both sign and AAC…focus on 1 and stick with it.
  • Sign language requires an ability to focus – children with Autism lack this ability.
  • May benefit the child with Autism but may isolate them from others who aren’t familiar with signs
  • Does not help the child to cope in the real world.


Therefore, why WOULDN’T we encourage students to communicate with their hands – which are always available and attached to our bodies? It is also very simple to teach family members and peers of students simple signs to help them communicate.


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