Top 5 Myths About Sign Language and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Sign Language and ASD: Myth Vs Fact

Until very recently, many special education experts have been reluctant to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to children with autism or to encourage parents to practice signing at home. This reluctance has been due to a variety beliefs and biases against signing—most of which have been proven false by current, more in-depth studies and research.

Educators have worried that teaching sign language will discourage children with autism from acquiring spoken language, create additional social barriers between children with autism and their neurotypical peers, or be burdensome by requiring teachers and parents to effectively become bilingual.

Sign Language and ASD: Myth Vs Fact

These fears couldn’t be further from the truth. As demonstrated by numerous studies about the effects of sign language on children with ASD, teaching at least a few basic signs in early childhood education programs or at home can actually be incredibly beneficial, particularly for nonverbal or minimally verbal children with autism. Here are the Top 5 Myths that often make educators reluctant to use every means available to communicate with children with autism:

MYTH: Learning sign language will make children with ASD less likely to develop speech.

FACT: While this is a prevalent and persistent myth, the research overwhelmingly shows that ASL and spoken language are complementary—and that learning sign language can even help children with ASD learn to speak. This is because the acquisition for the two diverse and distinct languages is strikingly similar even though the languages themselves are so different. Specifically, acquisition is similar because the developing brain processes both visual language and auditory language in the same way. In general, kids with ASD are more likely to be visual learners than auditory learners, so it makes sense to play to their language strengths rather than their deficits when first teaching communication skills. Plus, when children developing language skills experience success and see the power of communicating their needs with others, it encourages them to try to learn new skills.

MYTH: American Sign Language isn’t a ‘real’ language in the same way that spoken English is a real language.

FACT: Just like spoken language, ASL is a complex, sophisticated symbolic communication form that can be combined with other nonverbal forms of communication such as picture exchange, gestures, facial expressions, and even eye gaze in order to express yourself effectively. Just like spoken English, ASL is a natural language with its own grammatical structures, idioms, allusions, word play, and figurative expressions.

MYTH: Learning sign language and spoken language at the same time will confuse the child.

FACT: Research shows that sign language and other language acquisition skills can be taught in conjunction without confusing children. In fact, teaching sign language and spoken language simultaneously has been demonstrated to help children with autism become better at spoken English, achieve greater literacy in written English, and develop greater competency in communication overall due to the carryover effect of learning a visual language. Limiting or prohibiting learning one form of language in order to promote or improve the use of another form of language is unnecessary since learning both actually supports accessible, complete language development.  

MYTH: In order to teach ASL, I have to become fluent in sign language myself.

FACT: This is like saying that in order to help your child learn elementary school math you have to have a PhD. in Calculus or in order to teach your child kitchen skills you have to have a Culinary Arts degree. All that educators and parents have to do to communicate through sign language and teach sign language to children with ASD is stay a few signs ahead of the child. There are plenty of free and inexpensive tools for learning basic signs, which is all you need when attempting to teach and communicate with a young child.

MYTH: No one will understand the child with autism who uses signs, so learning ASL will create additional social and interpersonal barriers between children with ASD and their neurotypical peers.

FACT: Communication in any form is a good thing for social and interpersonal skills. If a child is open to learning basic signs at a young age, this will not only promote and enable interactions with family and peers, it will also help the child develop stronger cognitive abilities, acquire knowledge, participate more fully in the surrounding world, and gain a stronger sense of personal identity. Language is how we do all of these things and how we understand and process the world around us—which is the basis of any future ability to relate with others. All children, including children with ASD, are born with a natural capacity for language that ought to be nourished using whatever tools we have. Providing kids with autism with an accessible and complete language at an early age can help them hit other developmental milestones and acquire social and emotional abilities that are so critical to success.

In addition to all of the myths and fears outlined above, many professionals and parents feel confused about when to introduce children to sign language, where other communications tools such as assistive electronic devices and the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) come into play, and whether children who are using other communication tools also need sign language.

The truth is, it’s never too early to attempt to communicate with nonverbal or minimally verbal children with ASD. While sign language can help lead to vocalization—when it comes to children with autism, spoken language should not be the ultimate goal or the ultimate measure of success. The ultimate goal is competence in communication, not a certain form of communication.

In other words, the question should be: “Is the child communicating well?” or “Can I understand the child?”  and not: “How is the child communicating?” or “Is the child communicating in the ‘right’ way?”

Since the level of communicative competence that children with autism attain is both a predictor of future academic performance and social and adaptive skills, we must continue to use all methods at our disposal to improve results in early childhood education.

If you’re interested in learning more about how educators and parents can work together to help children with autism achieve success, mark your calendar now for the annual Converge Autism Conference. The two-day autism conference provides caregivers with a unique chance to spend time together discussing their experiences with ASD, and the diverse roster of speakers cover everything from effective treatments and therapies to more personal topics, like what it’s like to fall in love as a person with autism.