Children With Impaired Language
Communication – the exchange of thoughts, feelings and information between two or more people – is a basic requirement for human life. The ability to communicate is vital to express basic needs and wants, to pass on information, to ask questions, to gain knowledge and understanding, to socialize, to convey feelings and to build relationships. One can hardly imagine a place where a child would not grow and develop through the world of communication.
Between six and eight million people in the United States have some form of language impairment. How can parents help their child if language is impaired? The solution may be to try using sign language.
American Sign Language (ASL) is usually used for children with hearing impairments; however, observations made as early as the mid-19th century show that hearing children benefit from using ASL.
Bridging the Gap
Johanna Larson-Muhr, a speech pathology professor at the University of Oregon, cites in her paper, Acquisition of ASL in Hearing Children: Process and Benefit Potential, that "motor control of the hands matures before motor control of the voice in young children." This early motor control of the hands easily leads to practical sign language use in small children.
Larson-Muhr explains that when a person signs what they are also expressing verbally, the child is given several communication cues. ASL communication is visual, aural and physical. This combination of signals creates the probability of a multiple imprint on the learner's memory.
ASL also has other expressive functions such as eye gaze, eye contact and facial expression. These are three areas in which children with autism have difficulty. By using signs to help them acquire verbal language, they are also being helped in other areas of communication.
Alice Stroutsos, a speech pathologist in Seattle, Wash., says you can start teaching a normal child to sign as young as 8 months because they have enough memory to retain a sign's image for future reference.
Stroutsos uses Signed Exact English when teaching signs because it gives the exact meaning and structure of the English language and helps children sequence words. "You can use ASL and also naturalistic gestures – whatever works for your particular situation," says Stroutsos. "Communication is the goal."
Stroutsos doesn't believe that sign language may replace a child's speech. "Using sign before speech develops can actually enhance the overall communication process," she says. "The benefit of using sign language with a child who has disabilities is that it provides them with a way to communicate. It can lessen their frustration level, increase interaction and empower them emotionally as well as intellectually."
Stroutsos does recommend keeping a few things in mind with sign language. "Be patient and never show disappointment or frustration if a child doesn't produce a sign," she says. "Don't ask a child to sign out of context, perform for others or compare your children to other children. Don't make signing a lesson but use signs as an augment to your speech."
Signing and Children With Special Needs
Collette Seders has taught preschool for 22 years in Canada. She has been signing with children in preschool classrooms for almost 20 years and has signed one-on-one in at-home therapy programs for disabled children. The only disadvantage she sees with signing is that a child who signs is noticed by society and can be pushed aside as different. "I would like to see sign taught to all students so this shunning would cease," she says.
Seders has noticed a difference between hearing and non-hearing children who sign. "The difference between the two groups is the amount learned and the support within the family," she says. "Deaf children are immersed into a signing culture while other special needs children may have many people in their lives who do not sign."
Seders feels the gains each child makes using sign language are as unique as the child. "For many, it speeds up the child's ability to communicate because their eagerness to continue communication increases as they see the results of their efforts," she says.
Seders has used sign language with children of many disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Goldenhar's syndrome, hearing impaired and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). She has had success with most children at varying levels, but their physical situation and personal learning style can affect their ability to sign. "Some children who sign easily are visual learners, but I can't say I've had more success with one disability over another," she says. Seders feels hearing-impaired children with no other disabilities are the most successful at signing because of their amount of exposure to it.
Seders feels using ASL promotes verbal communication rather than hampers it. "It acts as a bridge to remind the child of a word," she says. "For example, when a child has asked for a toy but couldn't remember the word, I signed the word and then the child remembered it. Signing is a wonderful prompt."
Sign language can be an important bridge to communication for a child with disabilities. This tool can bring a child from the non-verbal world into a verbal one, opening new channels for interaction. The chance to communicate and be understood can be the greatest gift to a child.
Alice Stroutsos' Tips for Signing Success
- Start with three signs
- Keep it simple and significant
- Have the child's attention
- Teach when the child is receptive
- Use signs on a daily basis
- Make signing a habit
- Guide your child's hands
- Make it fun
- Praise their efforts
- Sign as you read to your child