March 18, 2019

Signing with children with special needs

Posted by Becka

Children with Special Needs
Using Sign Language

Who Benefits?

Sign language is typically only thought of in the context of the deaf community and children with hearing impairments. However, there are multiple populations and contexts in which sign language is beneficial. Some of these include children with special needs such as:

My child has special needs. What are the benefits
of using sign language? 

Research indicates multiple advantages for development in children with special needs. The development of speech, language, social, emotional and academic skills is enhanced through the use of sign language.

Learning Signs - Speech and Language Benefits

Sign language accelerates the acquisition of speech by stimulating areas of the brain that are associated with speech and language. 
Babies develop the gross motor skills needed for signing before they develop the fine motor skills associated with verbal speech. Signing provides language stimulation and conceptual information that enhances vocabulary development in children. 

Many children with special needs experience difficulty with expressive language and verbal ability. Sign language gives these children access to communication while strengthening the ability to produce expressive speech.

  • Special Needs - Social Benefits of Sign Language

    Children with special needs often experience frustration when communication becomes difficult. This frustration manifests itself in the form of temper tantrums, aggression, depression and other socially unacceptable behaviors. Sign language reduces frustration by providing a way to expressively communicate in situations where verbal communication may not be successful. Sign language breaks down communication barriersfor children with various disabilities and needs.
  • Emotional Benefits - Sign Language

    By expanding vocabulary and social opportunities, sign language naturally enhances self esteem.Children who face communication barriers benefit greatly when they are provided with various accesses to language and learning. These children develop better communication skills through sign language and are consequently happier and more independent. 
  • Academic Benefits - Children with Special Needs

    Children begin to develop language from the time that they are born. The brain begins to make connections through auditory and visual input. Children with special needs often have one or more impairments that affect normal development in the brain.

    Sign language essentially jump-starts the areas of the brain that are linked to speech and language development. Language is a primary building block for learning and academic development. Sign language stimulates intellectual development and helps children to retain information longer because it is a supplements speech input. Using many modes of input strengthens connections in the brain and therefore benefits academic development. 

My child requires special needs - When should I/we start using Sign Language?

As soon as possible! Babies develop language and knowledge from stimuli in their environment beginning from birth. Research has shown that babies develop the fine motor skills needed to form speech at approximately one year old. 
The gross motor skills needed for sign language develop months earlier. The frustration for most parents of children with special needs is that identification often does not occur this early. Signing with your baby regardless of special needs is a most wonderful idea; and, it is never too late. As soon as a child is identified with a special need, sign language can immediately be used to provide numerous developmental benefits.

Who else utilizes sign language for its magnificent benefits?

Sign language is becoming more widespread in the United States. It is commonly being used in homes across the country with hearing, hearing impaired and special needs family members. It is commonly thought that sign language is only for the Deaf community, but this is not true! 
The benefits of sign language are applicable to everyone. For this reason, sign language is also being implemented in various educational settings. It is used not only in deaf education classrooms, but also in special education classrooms and preschool classrooms. It is also used in unconventional settings such as hospitals. 

Many hospitals find sign language to be useful with both adult and pediatric patients that have a communication barrier, such as a tracheotomy. The benefits of sign language are so great that it is increasing in popularity in a variety of contexts! 

Should I Sign With My Special Needs Child?

Ultimately the decision to sign with a special needs child is up to the parent alone. The most important thing a parent should keep in mind is that these children often need input from multiple modalities. 
These modalities can be visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Sign language is a wonderful and beneficial tool for providing visual benefit in addition to verbal/auditory input. 

When there is a deficiency in one area, such as language learning disorder, one modality can provide a foundation for the development of another. Sign language can scaffold the acquisition of speech-language development as well as social and academic development.

Helpful Links - Children with Special Needs Utilizing Sign Language....

Babies and Children with Autism 

Down Syndrome and Sign Language - Boost Development Skills!

Parent-Pals Special Education Resources

Childhood Apraxia and the Benefits of Sign Language 

Childhood apraxia of speech is a motor disorder which causes children to have difficulty voluntarily making the movements needed for speech. Children with apraxia of speech do have the capability to say speech sounds, but they have a problem with motor planning. 
Imagine knowing exactly what you want to say, but when you open your mouth, only a garbled fraction of the word comes out - or even worse, something that doesn't resemble what you're trying to say at all! You can't seem to put more than two or three words together and form a sentence. Your parents and friends don't understand what you're saying, and you have no idea why. This can become incredibly frustrating for children, and sometimes even discourages them from wanting to talk. 
It's been shown that through extensive therapy with a speech-language pathologist, some children with apraxia can in fact resolve some of their problems with talking, though the disorder itself is thought to probably last forever. One thing the therapy tends to focus on is helping the child control how fast s/he talks (slowing it down gives your child more time to process his or her words). Another is the ability to control how his voice rises and falls as he talks (rhythm and melody can often help him learn to speak). Also, controlling the rhythm of his words can help (making sentences easier to put together). 
There are many methods used by speech-language pathologists, often times involving visual cues. Some have children use communication boards or pictures, as well as some basic finger signs to prompt or guide the child along. This is where sign language comes into the picture, and can be extremely beneficial. It's not very hard to see why. Even though the general school of thought is that sign language is only for deaf people, that is simply not true. By giving children with apraxia of speech (who can hear perfectly fine) the opportunity to use sign, we open up a whole new way to communicate. This can in turn also help them more effectively develop their ability to talk. 
Children with apraxia need multi-sensory input. The visual cues of sign can build a bridge for children to progress to normal-sounding speech. When both using a sign and voicing a word, it helps the child remember the motor process for that word. 
For example, let's think about the word "food." A therapist might use the sign for "food" while also saying the word aloud, and the child does the same. With this doubling-up of cues, the child remembers the process easier. He's seeing the sign, hearing the word, and then physically making the sign himself while saying the word aloud. This process is far more likely to stick than simply imitating the word he is being given. Seeing the sign can give him a visual "clue" to what word or idea he is trying to express. It also slows down the rate of speech, giving him more time to process what he's trying to say. 
Sign language is beneficial to children with apraxia on several different levels. 

Children with apraxia can use sign to assist their verbal speech - it should be thought of as a 'bridge' or an 'anchor' to communication. Once they find that they are being more easily understood, they tend to be more willing to learn and try to use more words. Using sign language for children with apraxia is not meant to replace their talking. It is meant to help them more effectively be able to speak. 

Sign Language and Autism

One of the most frustrating aspects of autism is the breakdown in communication. Children with autism struggle with the complexity of spoken language. Sign language creates an avenue of communication that strengthens speech and language development. 
Sign language provides numerous social, emotional, cognitive and communicative benefits for children with autism, such as: 

Sign language is a wonderful tool for parents, educators and families of children with autism. The benefits are immense! So then why is sign language not used for all children with autism? While there are many advantages for using sign language, there are also a few disadvantages: 

While autism can be challenging in many ways, there are many advantageous approaches to communication development. Sign language offers multiple proven benefits for children with various degrees of autism. Autism affects each child in a unique way and as a result the benefits are also unique to each child. In severe cases, sign language may not provide additional communication benefit to children with autism. 

However, the fact that it may provide benefit offers hope and blessings to countless families. Sign language has never proven to be detrimental to children with autism, so what is there to lose? 
If you have ever known a child with autism, then you know the hope that communication development provides. Sign language stimulates and strengthens communication development and offers hope for families and children that are affected by autism.

Down Syndrome and Sign Language Benefits!

Sign Language actually helps babies, toddlers, and children with Down Syndrome by improving their communication skills.

Using sign language in Down Syndrome can make life a lot easier for everyone concerned. Many children with Down Syndrome have some degree of speech delay. This makes it difficult for the child, as well as the parents, to communicate. A child (of any age) needs to be able to communicate to her parents and caregivers what she wants/needs. When babies reach a certain age, they start to form "opinions" about what they should eat, when they should eat, where they should eat and more. When your baby can't communicate this need/want to you (the caregiver) she will become frustrated. If you can't guess what it is she needs (i.e. a drink, a cracker, a diaper change) you will both become agitated very quickly. She will fuss and cry, and you will…hmmm…well, maybe you'll cry too! 

Sign Language 
Sign language is an excellent means for you and your baby to communicate. Many babies can pick up signs long before they speak their first words. Even more so with babies who have Down Syndrome. Since their speech is often delayed, it is highly beneficial to learn some alternate method of communication. There are many programs on the market for learning sign language. Your early intervention program may also be able to help you and your baby learn signs. 
Other Means of Communication

Of course, there are other means of communication such as smiles, gestures, and other vocalizations (like crying and screaming). Picture boards can also be used when your baby is a bit older. The most effective means, in my opinion, is still signing. 

How to teach your baby signs

Start simple
Begin with simple signs like "eat", "drink", "sleep", "milk", "more", etc. My son's favorite is "eat" of course! It was also his first. 

Use the sign often
Introduce one sign at a time, and use it every time you do anything related to it. For example, if you want to introduce the sign for "eat" you would make the sign and help your child make the sign every time she eats. It is also important to actually say the spoken word as you sign it. This way she will hear it and learn to associate it with the sign. 
*Tip* When helping your baby learn a sign, come from behind her and help her hands form the shape and make the movements. The feel is just more natural that way. You will be guiding your baby's hands as if she was making the sign herself. 
Above all, make it fun! Be enthusiastic (over enthusiastic even) when your baby even attempts to make a sign. Never mind if it's not perfect. As long as you know what she is "saying". With age and experience the signs will become better. I can't stress enough, in everything your baby does, praise her, make a big deal, show your excitement. It will motivate her to try that much harder.

Here is more information about babies and children with Down Syndrome and the positive effects of learning sign language with significant results.

"How Manual Sign Acquisition Relates to the Development
of Spoken Language: A Case Study"

Kouri, Theresa - School of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Kent State University, Kent, OH 44242
The relationship between signed and spoken word was observed in a young girl with Down Syndrome during a treatment regimen using simultaneous input. 
All of her words were recorded over an 8-month period and classified according to the manner of speech and communication production (i.e., spontaneous/imitated; signed and/or spoken). 
It was revealed that most of the words that the girl initially signed were later spontaneously spoken and that most of her signs evolved into spontaneous speech.
Several ideas and themes were demonstrated with specific words (ex: signs to speech), and sign/spoken developments during the first versus the final four months of the research study. It was concluded that use of simultaneous signs supports the formation of spoken language.

And for more research/information on Down Syndrome and American Sign Language, please see

The Benefits of Sign Language for Deaf Babies and Children

"Your baby has a hearing loss." 

For nine long months you have waited for the arrival of this precious baby. Ten fingers and ten toes are reassurance that you have a beautiful, healthy child! In those first moments as a new parent you are filled with love, relief, fear, and visions of your child's future. Then a routine hearing screening changes that vision with only a few words…"Your baby has a hearing loss.." 
A diagnosis of hearing loss can be frightening for any new family. 
Suddenly, there are a whole different set of decisions to be made and the clock is already ticking. One of the most important and difficult decisions to be made is the method of communicationyour family will use with your hearing-impaired child. This decision must be made early as the first few years of life are significantly crucial to a child's language development. 
During this critical period, the primary goal for your deaf child is communication. American Sign Language often meets this goal much earlier than speech and offers cognitive, social/emotional and speech/language benefits for deaf children.

Sign Language Cognitive Benefits for Deaf Babies and Children

  • Sign language jumpstarts brain development 
    Sign language enhances brain development by establishing connections between auditory and visual input. Signing acts as catalyst for communication by jumpstarting areas of the brain that are linked to speech and language development.
  • Sign language increases memory 
    The visual input provided by sign language stimulates intellectual development and increases a child's ability to retain information longer. This ability benefits a deaf child's academic development by increasing language and vocabulary skills.
  • Utilizing sign language enhances reading, writing and math development 
    The visual-spatial aspect of sign language supplements the spatial skills needed for various mathematical concepts. Similarly, thefingerspelling alphabet is another aspect of sign language that correlates directly to phonetic skills that are necessary for reading and writing. Both aspects of sign language provide skills that are vital to the academic success of a deaf child.

Sign Language for Deaf Babies - Social/Emotional Benefits

  • Signing reduces frustration for the child 
    A deaf child that can easily communicate a basic need such as wanting a favorite toy or needing a drink will be much happier. 
    The oral communication barriers caused by a lack of auditory stimulation can produce a great deal of frustration for a deaf child and can lead to socially inacceptable behaviors like temper tantrums and aggression. 
    Signing bridges that communication gap and creates an emotionally secure social environment for your hearing-impaired child.
  • Signing reinforces vocabulary and broadens your child’s social circle 
    Language and vocabulary development are key in social development. Think back to high school Spanish class: the more vocabulary you learned, the more you were able to connect with others and establish relationships. Increasing a Deaf child’s vocabulary through sign language essentially increases the circle of people with whom your child can connect and establish relationships!
  • Signing boosts confidence because communication is easier and more natural 
    Sign language gives Deaf children an easy and natural way to express themselves. When this expression is reinforced through social interaction, confidence begins to emerge
    Confidence is the fire that strengthens and builds social development. Confidence develops as your child begins to express himself and understand the expressions of others. 
    When children develop this communication skill, they will naturally begin to seek out social interactions and relationships.

Speech/Language Benefits Through ASL Signs

  • Signing stimulates social connections by reinforcing verbal communication 
    Sign language offers visual input that stimulates verbal communication by increasing language development. Studies have shown that sign language strengthens connections in the brain that are used for speech development
    Speech and language are the building blocks of social development. These enable your deaf child to interact with the world and begin to make social connections.
  • Sign language boosts speech development 
    Sign language accelerates the acquisition of speech by stimulating areas of the brain that are associated with speech and language. Most babies(deaf or hearing) develop the gross motor skills needed for signing before they develop the fine motor skills associated with verbal speech.
  • Signing with your deaf baby builds excellent expressive and receptive language skills 
    Signing provides language stimulation and conceptual information that enhances vocabulary development in deaf children. Many children with hearing loss experience difficulty with expressive language and verbal ability. 
    Learning sign language removes a lot of this frustration; while giving children with hearing impairments access to communication; while simultaneously strengthening the ability to produce expressive speech.

Sign language is a highly beneficial and easily accessible tool for parents of deaf infants and children. The earlier that you as parents expose your Deaf children to sign language, the earlier your child begins to connect with the world around them. Sign language strengthens the academic, social and linguistic potential of deaf children

Sign language offers endless benefits that continue to facilitate successful outcomes for deaf children and their families around the entire world. *If you'd like to learn and understand more about utilizing american sign language for your deaf baby or child, this author personally recommends that you please take on as much research as you can, to see and grasp all sides of thoughts, opinions, and facts. 

Honestly and realistically, the most important aspect is not so much if your Deaf baby can vocalize 10 words perfectly by age 24 months - but rather your Deaf baby can communicate clearly with you, using more than 200+ words via signing naturally.    
(Please remember, your blessed darling can still learn to vocalize words, after commanding the all important aspects of communication first.)


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