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Autism and ASL:

Also see: The Use of Sign Language to Help  Autistic Children Communicate

Corey Helwig

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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