Is there a Positive Link between Autism and Baby Sign Language?

by Sharon Weisz
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In my speech therapy practice, I frequently see children who appear to be late talkers and may or may not have a diagnosis of Autism. For these clients, I consider introducing basic early signs as a method of augmenting their language.According to Hanen, a non-profit organization that involves parents in the treatment process, “Research has shown that children who have better abilities with these three skills [joint attention, imitation, and toy play] in early childhood have better communication skills as older children.Difficulties with [these skills] can be seen even in very young children with autism between ages 9-18 months. This is important because, if difficulties in these areas are identified at a very young age, we can focus on them in intervention as early as possible to promote communication development.” 
How can signing benefit a child with Autism?
Teaching babies to sign is a wonderful way for parents to bond with their babies and reduce frustration. For babies who may have Autism, learning to sign may be particularly beneficial as the three aforementioned skills are specifically targeted in baby signing courses.

1. Joint Attention = When two or more people are paying attention to the same thing. For example, if mom points and says “Look at the airplane”, both mom and child are focusing on the airplane. Not only should mom be drawing the child’s attention to things, but the child should also be wanting to share interesting things with others by ‘pointing’ and even saying “Mommy look!”

Babies begin sharing experiences through pointing as early as 10 months of age. Children with Autism do not necessarily acquire the skill of pointing as they may not feel inclined to share such experiences.

In baby signing courses, instructors teach parents to pay attention to what their babies are interested in at any given moment, such as a light or a passing car. Parents are then encouraged to say the word while simultaneously making the sign. When the parent and child are looking at or talking about the same thing, they are having joint attention. Joint attention is critical to learning about the world around them.

2. Imitation “is the ability to copy other people’s sounds, facial movements, body movements, and actions with objects,” according to Hanen.

In baby signing courses, instructors teach parents to imitate their babies’ actions and sounds. In so doing, the baby sees that his actions and sounds are having an effect on his environment. In addition, it encourages the baby to continue gesturing and making sounds and it becomes a 2-way interaction, almost like a conversation (eg. Mommy talks, now I talk, now mommy talks, now I talk). Research by Andrew Meltzoff found that babies look longer and smile more at adults who imitate them.

Furthermore, imitating gestures and actions is a precursor to imitating speech. The motor skills develop earlier in the hands than in the mouth giving all babies an opportunity to form signs before they can speak. This is even more true of children with Autism in that many of these children present with difficulties coordinating their speech muscles making speech even more challenging. Both spoken words and signed words are essentially symbols that represent items and concepts. By learning to sign, children are learning to make the connection between language and the world around them. Once they have learned to sign, whether it is only a few signs or dozens of signs, they may begin attempting to say words. If a child is not going to speak, as some children may not, signing may give the child a way to communicate his wants and needs thereby reducing frustration.

3. “Toy Play – There are two types of toy play that are connected to communication development ─ “functional toy play” and “pretend play”:

‘Functional play’ involves using toys in expected ways, such as putting a marble onto a ramp so it runs down to the bottom, pushing a car, or putting a puzzle piece in a puzzle.

‘Pretend play’ involves imagining with toys, such as pretending to feed a doll, putting gas in a toy car, or cooking with toy food in a toy kitchen.”

In baby signing courses, instructors teach parents how to play with their children as well as how to add language to the interaction. For example, dad and baby may roll a ball back and forth. Each time dad catches the ball, he may sign and say “ball” right onto the ball before rolling the ball back to the baby. This type of interactive play may not come as easily to a child with Autism if the child prefers to play alone. In such cases, the parent may be encouraged to follow the child’s lead by sitting beside him while he plays with a desired toy or object in his own way. The parent can still add language to the interaction by talking about what is happening and adding signs to the interaction. For example, “Billy is playing cars. The car is going doooown. Now the car is going uuuup.”

While more research needs to be done to determine the benefits of baby sign language and Autism, it appears that the baby sign language courses introduce parents to the 3 key concepts that determine outcomes of communication skills in older children, namely joint attention, imitation, and toy play.

References: – Like Me: A Foundation for Social Cognition, Andrew N. Meltzoff, 2007
The Baby Signing Book, By: Sara Bingham
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