American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most used foreign language in the United States. It ranks right behind Spanish and French, with approximately 2 million individuals in the United States utilizing it (Gallaudet University Library, 2016).
How can this beautiful language be used to benefit the lives of children with autism?
1. Does Your Child With Autism Have a Hearing Loss?
It is not uncommon for children with autism to also have a diagnosis of a hearing loss. These hearing losses may range from mild to profound. The Gallaudet Research Institute estimates as many as 40 percent of children with hearing loss exhibit an additional disability and estimates the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among students who are deaf or have a hearing loss to be 1 in 59. (Clason, 2017).
Despite the degree of hearing loss, many individuals with autism and a hearing loss may not tolerate the use of hearing aids. They may not like the increased level of auditory information provided by a hearing aid or the tactile feeling of the hearing aid in their ear canal.
Many students with autism may present with normal hearing. However, a child with ASD may still process sound differently than other children. While some students may be overly sensitive to sound, others may be under sensitive and not react to sound or requests being made of them.
However, these children may struggle with comprehending what is being asked of them. They may be identified as stubborn or lazy when, in fact, they may not be hearing information correctly and not feel comfortable responding vocally to requests. Being exposed to ASL could open up a whole new world for children in how they communicate with others. By learning some basic ASL skills, they can make their daily needs know to both teachers and parents.
2. A Sense of Community With the Deaf Community
Many children with autism that learn ASL are surprised at how well they are accepted into their local deaf community. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are very happy to interact with individuals with autism who can communicate directly with them.
3. Increased Eye Contact and Facial Expression
Numerous individuals with autism struggle with maintaining appropriate levels of eye contact with people as they communicate. ASL is a visual language. Individuals with autism find it necessary to visually attend to individuals communicating with them in ASL in order to process what is being said. In many cases, they are more comfortable maintaining eye contact when the communication involves no sound and just visual information.
ASL uses facial expressions as a means for successful communication. Raised eyebrows indicate to students that the speaker is asking a “Yes / No” type of question. Eyebrows that are lowered indicate the speaker is asking a “WH” style of question such as: Who, What. When, Where or Why. Students with autism often struggle with reading the facial expression of someone who is verbally communicating with them. They may thrive in their level of understanding when taught how to use their signing skills in combination with various facial expressions.
4. Increased Social Skills
People have always been attracted to ASL. The movements and the beauty of the language engulf individuals. Children in the school system and local neighborhood will want to attempt to communicate with your child who has autism who may also be signing. They may want to interact with your child to learn a little ASL themselves. This can allow for a wider circle of social interaction during both the school day and within their local community. Even siblings can become involved by learning how to successfully communicate without any sound involved.
5. Reduced Noise Levels
Children with autism often have a sensitivity to noise levels in their own environments or will wear headphones/earbuds to block out noise during the school day. However, these devices must be removed constantly in an attempt to hear what is being said. Children with autism who can sign can leave their headphones or earbuds in place while keeping the noise levels reduced but still maintain their ability to communicate through ASL.
6. Foreign Language
ASL is considered a foreign language by many public schools across the United States. Students with autism may struggle to learn a foreign language that is verbal such as: French, German, or Italian. However, they may thrive when it comes to dealing with a visual foreign language. It may allow them to gain foreign language credit both in high school and college.
7. Selective Mutism /Non-Verbal Students
Some students with autism may be non-verbal. ASL can offer a means for letting their basic needs to be known throughout the school day. If the home also learns ASL, it will allow these students to generalize their language skills from school into their home. There are also students with autism who are very verbal, but at different times during their involvement at school or home, will elect to shut off their voices. This is often referred to as selective mutism.
Some students with autism may elect to do this for a short period, while others may involve themselves in this situation for weeks. During this time, communication with teachers, parents, and family members can become extremely difficult. Children with autism who have learned ASL have found they can still deal with their anxiety and insecurities, possible shut off their voices, and still maintain communication by using their ASL skills
8. Join a School ASL Club
Children with autism may have difficulty joining clubs and activities within the school system and community, making ASL club a terrific option. There are always peers in the school system who would love to learn ASL for a variety of reasons. Parents and teachers can work together to start an American Sign Language Club at their school. Children with autism who sign could be encouraged to join and thus widen their opportunities to make friends and strengthen their social and communication skills.
Throughout their time in school, many professionals will be working with your child to assist in developing his/her level of self-advocacy skills. Some students with autism may not want to verbally state their needs or wants. Others may simply be non-verbal and consistently struggle with making their needs known. ASL can be introduced to these students as an effective way to self-advocate. It can become another “tool” to utilize when necessary.
10. Reduced Behavioral Issues
All behavior is, in some way, a form of communication. Many students with autism may react behaviorally if they feel frustrated or anxious over not being understood or having their needs met. Children with autism who struggle with communication can be introduced to ASL. Once their needs are being met consistently, they may not feel the need to act upon the usage of inappropriate behaviors as a means for gaining either attention or to access a preferred item.