By Louise Sattler
If you are a parent of a child who is past the infant stage, you will undoubtedly know about a period of time I refer to as the “Eh’Eh” stage. This is when young toddlers go about the house pointing to objects and people and saying “Eh-Eh”. It is cute for a while. That is until the tantrums start because most adults are not fluent in “toddler-speak” and guessing can be only so effective. Eventually, language develops for the toddler at a rapid pace and this phase dissipates quietly away. That is unless your child perhaps has Autism or is on the Autism Spectrum (aka ASD). Then the question arises- “What can we do to help our child to communicate?”
As a psychologist, I have long believed that sign language integrated with speech, can be a powerful mode for communication among children on the spectrum. The key, however- that this is a group effort. Therefore, most of the people in the child’s environment, need to hop on the sign language train in order to maximize the benefits of multi-modal communication for the child. This would include caregivers, babysitters and all the immediate family.
How does one even start to learn sign language if you don’t have access to the deaf community? For one, recognize that the deaf community usually uses American Sign Language (ASL) which has its’ own nuances, including a formal grammatical system. Sign language customarily used for ASD children follows English word order. Also, many times key words and phrases will be spoken to “punctuate’ the important factors of the spoken communication. Sign language does not use all of the bits and pieces of spoken English- such as articles, many “to be” phrases, etc. One would be more likely to sign RED CAR (pointing) vs. “That is a red car”.
When I instruct adults on how to learn sign language I give them a few key informational concepts, particularly if their goal is to promote or augment communication with children within the special education population. Here they are:
1. Adults should start with FIVE signs. When you feel that you have integrated the “first five” then it will be time to add five more. And do not expect the child to sign back for quite some time. Sign language acquisition is a process.
2. Start with signs that are generic- such as MORE, EAT, DRINK, PLAY vs. detailed signs such as Cheerios, Apple Juice and Elmo.
3. Do not worry about making mistakes. Everyone needs to keep trying. Make sure that you introduce the sign language during natural circumstances. Don’t force sign language on your child (Especially by moving the child’s hand for them, unless they are accepting of this). This will reduce frustration, increase participation and make it fun for all.
4. Access free and affordable materials to learn sign language. The library is a great resource for many. Also, online you can find a whole host of companies that offer for free basic vocabulary lessons. I have some listed below.
5. Practice yourselves. Reinforce your child when they do sign.
6. Remember that you are on a language journey and don’t give up.
Thanks for reading!
Suggestions for further study:
Louise Sattler is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, owner of SIGNING FAMILIES™, expert contributor to the JustAsk! Forum on Education.com, and a founding member of the new media network- 411Voices. She often speaks to groups regarding how to use sign language effectively with children who have learning challenges.
Connect with Louise at SIGNING FAMILIES, LouiseSattler.com and 411Voices.
Look for SIGNING FAMILIES on Facebook.
Louise tweets as @LouiseASL