Autism and ASL
Every parent awaits their child's first words. Unfortunately, this does
not happen at the predetermined time, or even at all. It is a common
occurrence for people who have autism to have very little, very poor, or no
verbal communication skills. In order to teach these individuals to
communicate, either by attempting to promote verbal communication, or teach
other methods in place of verbal communication, various forms of nonverbal
communication have been implemented. Two of the most popular forms of
communication that have been and still are being taught to people have
autism in the United States are the Picture Exchange Communication System
(PECS) and American Sign Language (ASL).
A question that most commonly arises with the parents of children who have
autism is what method to choose. Is one method better than the other in
teaching their child to communicate? Will one method promote verbal
communication over the other? Would teaching their child both methods be a
preferable course of action?
For many years, there have been people opposed to the use of sign language
for people with autism. According to Reinforcement Unlimited, a research and
resource databank based in Georgia for behavior consultants, many people
claim that the use of communicative gestures impedes the development of
verbal language. "Many have argued that PECS is superior to ASL because
naive listeners (readers) can understand the communication efforts of the
autistic child more readily and that PECS is superior to ASL in development
of spoken language" ("ASL vs. PECS", 1996-2007). Another claim as to why
sign language is not ideal is because there is not a natural group of
listeners for sign language and it isolates the child.
Conversely, teaching sign language to children with autism can serve the
purpose of functionally replacing other disruptive behaviors such as
aggression, self-injurious behavior, and tantrumming; which are often a
result of their inability to communicate with others. "Signed Speech may, at
the very least, allow the person to communicate using signs and may
stimulate verbal language skills" ("Signed Speech or Simultaneous
Communication", Stephen M. Edelson). In this sense, teaching a child with
autism to communicate using sign language may be an easier transition into
using functionally equivalent alternative behaviors as a means of
communicating because it teaches the use of gestures which may already be a
part of their aberrant behaviors.
A study authored by Matt Tincani was published in 2004 in the journal
Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities which involved
testing each method on two different elementary school students, both
diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (p. 153-163). For one student, sign
language training produced a higher percentage of independent mands, or
requests for preferred items. PECS training produced a higher percentage of
independent mands for the other participant. In each student, sign language
produced a higher percentage of vocalizations during training.
In conclusion, while both PECS and ASL have been shown to be the most
effective methods to helping people with autism communicate and express
their needs, teaching a child with autism to use sign language along with
speech may actually accelerate verbal communication.
Edelson, S. (n.d.). Signed Speech or Simultaneous Communication. from
Tincani, M. (2004). Comparing the Picture Exchange Communication System and
Sign Language Training for Children with Autism. Focus on Autism and
Other Developmental Disabilities. 152-163(12).
Reinforcement Unlimited. American Sign Language vs. Picture Exchange
Communication System in the Development of Verbal Language in Children with
Autism: A Review (n.d.). from
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