Sign Language an Effective Tool for Autism Education
> 12/13/2007 11:33:21 AM

Communication is the most prominant casualty of autism, a spectrum disorder that often creates a tragic wall of failed connections between affected kids and their parents, siblings, teachers and supervisors. The aggression, anger and disruptive behavior common to many developing autistic kids stems in large part from their inability to communicate their emotions and needs to those around them. If only autistic children could make their voices better heard (and understood). If only they could appreciate and return the sentiments of all those who seek only to help them. In response to autism education's central dilemma, some advocates now propose the widespread adoption of an unusual counter-technique: sign language.

Initially limited to use as a language instruction tool for deaf children, sign language can help developmentally disabled kids better understand the messages conveyed through the use of words in combination when it's taught synonymously with speech. And it has, in limited use, proven surprisingly successful in helping autistic kids express their emotions despite a limited mastery of language and abstract thought. Affected patients often have trouble with metaphors and other conceptual logic, interpreting everything they hear as a direct, concrete statement of fact. They work primarily from visual cues and have trouble translating their emotions into language; this inability to convey their feelings also makes reading the same cues in others far more difficult.

Audio/visual connections in the brains of autistic kids are often compromised, and learning signs is, for many, far easier than learning the words themselves. Autistic children often have heightened capacaties for imitating and reproducing physical movements displayed by others, and they, even more so than other children, learn better when able to associate physical objects or symbols with certain words and phrases. As with deaf children, sign language reinforces the literal meanings and emotional implications of the words being spoken to autistic kids, eventually leading them toward better understanding and usage. In the most severely disabled children, sign language may serve as a substitute for or precursor to language, but in most cases it supplements and, hopefully, speeds up the learning process. Some fear that children who learn sign language first will hesitate to speak, but even if a child has not yet begun to master the concept of language, sign language may provide the cognitive framework for later educational trajectories, allowing a child to begin processing ideas and making decisions based on accumulated knowledge and association.

The proposal is not a new one - a movement to use sign language in teaching young children, especially those with developmental disabilities, gained considerable strength in the 70's. Noting that visual cues are strongest for autistic kids, advocates have connected autism and sign language in the past, but the movement has gained new attention and credibility in the face of large increases in autism diagnoses and related research. As both traditional and specially tailored early-learning models prove unsatisfactory for an increasing number of kids and their parents, alternative approaches such as these will inevitably come into focus again. While many proposed treatments carry very little weight in the scientific community, and sign language is in no way a miracle cure, the practice unquestionably facilitates the linguistic process for many autistic kids. Large-scale studies should be the next step.

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