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Christian Vaughan, MS, CCC-SLP
Assistant Lead Speech-Language Pathologist

Please give an overview on incorporating and teaching sign language in speech therapy.

Sign language can be a very useful tool for children who become frustrated when they are unable to verbally communicate their wants and needs. Typically, the most functional signs are taught first. These usually include “more”, “all done”, “help”, “bathroom”, as well as others, depending on the needs of the child.   

When is sign language useful?

Typically, children start saying their first words around 1-year- old. If a child is a “late talker”, a speech-language pathologist may teach some functional signs as a way to encourage communication, which he/she can later transition into pairing with speech approximations and then move to speech alone (depending on the child’s abilities).

Sign language can also be used with children who are nonverbal, or do not use functional speech as their primary method of communication. There are a variety of communication methods that can be taught to nonverbal children, but sign language is often introduced first (when the motor movements involved in sign language are adequate).

What is the benefit in teaching signed speech?

For those children who do not use speech as a primary mode of communication, this is a great method to help decrease the child’s frustration from being unable to communicate his or her wants and needs. Because the child can now communicate, this increases their sense of independence and ability to use their own “voice”.

Who would be a typical candidate for teaching signed speech?

Some children have difficulties planning and executing the fine motor movements involved in speech production. Sign language involves using larger movements which can be easier to imitate and independently use. Sign language can be used for these children with motor planning difficulties (these patients may be diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, or other developmental disorders), the deaf or hard of hearing patients, and late talkers.

Sign language is not only for those who have a hearing impairment, correct?

It is not. Sign language can be an option for any child with the adequate motor skills to execute the signs.

What is a typical objective(s)/goal(s) that is set for a child who is learning signed speech? 

Every child’s needs are different, and not every child transitions from sign language to speech, but when teaching sign language, functional signs are taught first. So goals usually state that the child will independently use functional signs to get his or her needs met. Depending on the child’s skill level, goals may then transition to the patient pairing signs with speech approximations to get his or her needs met. An example in this goal would be requiring the child to sign for “more” as he/she approximates the word “more” (an approximation may be “mmm” or “mo”). Finally, goals would be written for the child to independently use functional speech to get his or her needs met; so independently stating “more” verbally, without the use of sign language.

What to expect if your child does start learning signed speech.

As a parent of a child who is learning to use sign language, expect to learn the signs as well. A speech-language pathologist will help teach your child signs, but these signs must be carried over into the home environment. Without this carryover, progress, generalization, and independence using the signs will be much slower. Also, parents must be on the lookout for communication opportunities to use sign in a variety of settings. For example, practicing the sign “more” is very appropriate during meal times. Your child can practice this sign to request “more” of a highly preferred food. You can also practice this sign during play, such as requesting “more” tickles or peek-a-boo. Finding multiple communication opportunities to practice the signs will help increase progress towards your child’s goals.

 What can a parent(s) do to find out more?

Talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child's speech and/or hearing. If needed, he or she will be able to refer you to a speech-language pathologist and/or audiologist (this professional specializes in the hearing impaired population) who can perform an evaluation. Early identification is very important, so if you have concerns, ask your pediatrician.

Other communication methods.

There are other communication methods that can be used with children who are nonverbal. Exchanging pictures of desired items is one method (a popular program is called the Picture Exchange Communication System or PECS). Or, your speech language pathologist may feel that a mid-tech or high-tech communication device would be most appropriate. These are electronic devices that help the child communicate his or her wants and needs. Sign language, picture exchange, and electronic devices are all appropriate methods of communication, but the key is finding the method that best fits the child's needs.

To learn more, below are recommended references:

  • American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) http://www.asha.org/
  • National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/
  • Identifying the Signs of Communication Disorders: http://identifythesigns.org/
  • Early signs to teach: http://www.parenting.com/gallery/baby-sign-language-words-to-know?page=0
  • For additional information on Special Kids Speech Therapy, please visit http://www.specialkidstn.com/speech-therapy
  • Read more on “Getting Started” with Special Kids by visiting www.specialkidstn.com/getting-started

References are for informational purposes only and they are not intended to replace physician and/or speech therapy treatment(s).