What if my Child or Client Can’t Imitate Signs?

By Mary Barbera, PhD, RN, BCBA-D

When my son, Lucas, was diagnosed with autism the day before his third birthday, he was able to speak so we never explored the use of sign language for him. Four years later, In 2003, when I became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and began working with hundreds of children with autism, I needed to learn some sign language quickly to help kids who were not speaking. More importantly I needed to learn how to teach children how to communicate via sign.

Sign language is one of three main augmentative communication systems used to teach children with autism to communicate with others. I usually choose sign language for early learners because it’s portable and we can eventually teach a child (who doesn’t acquire speech) to use signs across the operants (to request/mand, to label/tact, to answer questions/intraverbal, etc.)

Research has shown that, when sign is accompanied by spoken words, it works to improve vocalizations and I have found that most of my clients who I start working with at a young age eventually do acquire some spoken language.

One of the biggest misconceptions about sign language is that a child needs to know how to imitate before we can teach him to communicate via sign. Luckily, this is not the case. Most of my clients with autism who have no ability to speak when I began working with them, also had no ability to echo, match, touch body parts or imitate either. I have found that teaching 3-5 signs very early on helps children accept physical prompts, can reduce problem behaviors and often improves imitation skills.

I believe teaching 3 to 5 signs is an important step in developing language in your child or client with autism. And the good news is that you don’t have to wait for the child to develop imitation before teaching them signs! In fact, it is best to teach these early skills together.

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