Sign language is the preferred language for people who lack verbal communication ability. American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most commonly used language in the United States. Only English and Spanish are spoken more than sign language.
The beauty of sign language is that it is convenient, portable, doesn't require any special equipment, and is standard throughout the United States. The major disadvantage—and this is one that can and should be overcome—is that the language has to be learned by all family members, not just the child with autism.
American Sign Language
There are two major forms of sign language. The most widely used by the deaf community is ASL. ASL is a language that allows people with deafness to “hear” the same things the rest of the population can hear. Speeches, concerts, plays, and many other public events have an ASL interpreter present for translation. ASL is standardized and used consistently throughout the United States.
Many communities have sign language classes. If you decide to use sign language in your family, it is very helpful to take classes so you can teach your other children and your child with autism. There are also many books, videos, and computer programs that can help. These are very handy for parents and siblings of the child learning sign language.
The other sign language, usually preferred by the autism community, is Exact English. Exact English is based on ASL but has some important differences that make this the preferred method. The learning curve is a little easier than ASL, but the difference is not significant. If you know ASL, you can work with Exact English very easily. Learning ASL will only make Exact English easier, so don't hesitate to get instruction on ASL. A book with the Exact English signs will show the differences and should be all the extra help, beyond learning ASL, that you might need.
Check on the Internet for books on sign language. Some excellent books have large drawings of each sign and have signs arranged in alphabetical order. This is a quick way to reference a sign if you have forgotten it. It is also a good way to learn new signs.
The primary difference between Exact English and ASL is that ASL relies upon the use of conceptual thinking. Keeping in mind that sign language was developed for a community that had full receptive speech, the motions and gestures of ASL were created to say as much as possible quickly and economically. Entire phrases are often one single sign, and many of these phrases include words that are conceptual in nature. “I love you,” for example, can be said three different ways: spelling out the letters of each of the three words (eight signs), signing one sign per word (three signs), or by using one sign that represents the entire phrase. ASL uses one sign for the entire phrase whereas Exact English uses one sign per word. This is helpful for children with autism as they learn about conceptual ideas.
Another advantage of Exact English is that it is accessible for the entire family. As a child learns a new sign, the parents can also learn the same sign. The alphabet can easily be learned by the entire family and can be used to spell out words—if a child understands words by reading. For these children, signing with Exact English helps brings words off the paper and into everyday usage.
It is very common for a child to learn a sign and then verbalize the word that the sign represents. However, this is not always the case, nor should it be the goal in teaching your child sign language. But, if this is the case with your child, speaking while signing will be an opportunity to develop more language skills. Your child may not be able to leave signing behind altogether, but as verbalization accompanies the signs, your child's skills in receptive communication will improve along with expressive speech.