An adult male is sitting on the floor with a male toddler, and the two are communicating with signs. This helps illustrate sign language for autism.

Sign Language for Autism

Autism and sign language can intertwine in several ways, often serving as a valuable tool for communication and expression for individuals on the autism spectrum. There are many ways that sign language for autism can be used. At Blue Parachute, we understand that sign language is a beneficial tool. When it comes to sign language for nonverbal autism, it can be life-changing. Even if you are working with a child who is verbal, this can be an easier way for some on the autism spectrum to express themselves.

Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign language is not a universal language. In the same way that we speak English in America, people speak French in France, and many speak Portuguese in Brazil, the country a person lives in will determine which version they learn and use. American Sign Language, or ASL, is the language utilized by most individuals who sign in the United States.

Teaching Sign Language

If you will be teaching sign language to a non-vocal child with autism, one option is to use a sign language teacher. Another option is to teach the child yourself. You might be wondering, “How can I learn how to teach myself sign language?” We recommend adults start with American Sign Language letters. Learning the alphabet can help you hold conversations with others when you aren’t familiar with the specific sign.

Why Should I Teach Sign Language to My Autistic Child?

Some individuals with autism may face challenges in verbal communication. Using ASL provides an alternative means of expression for those who may be non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities.

Sign language is considered a form of AAC, which stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. It can be used alongside or instead of speech to support communication for individuals with autism.

Many individuals with autism are visual learners, meaning they may understand and process information better through visual cues. Sign language, being a visual language, aligns well with the visual learning strengths of many individuals with autism. Additionally, it can help reduce frustration. Difficulty in verbal communication can lead to frustration for individuals with autism. ASL can help reduce frustration by providing an alternative way to convey thoughts, needs, and emotions.

When thinking about social communication, this communication tool can support social communication skills. It provides a structured and visual way to interact with others, facilitating social engagement and connections. Plus, individuals with autism often benefit from routines and structured environments. Sign language, when incorporated into a routine, can become a consistent and structured way of communication.

For some children with autism, introducing this form of communication early in development can serve as an early intervention strategy to enhance communication skills before or alongside speech development. Sign language involves both expressive (signing) and receptive (understanding signs) communication skills. Developing these skills can contribute to overall language development.

Some of the ways sign language can be a valuable tool for communication and can foster various aspects of development include the following:

  • Provides an alternative form of communication.

  • Reduces communication frustrations.

  • Helps tailor communication to a person’s individual needs.

  • Creates a better parent-child bond when they have shared communication.

It’s important to note that while sign language can be a beneficial tool for many individuals with autism, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each person with autism is unique, and the use of sign language should be based on their specific needs, preferences, and strengths. Approach your teaching with patience, flexibility, and a recognition of your child’s unique needs. 

If you’re considering incorporating sign language, it may be helpful to consult with professionals, such as speech therapists or educators, who can provide guidance based on your child’s specific situation. Keep in mind that some individuals with autism may not find this language suitable for their communication needs, and alternative approaches should be explored.

Teaching Sign Language to a Child With ASD

Teaching sign language to a child can be a rewarding experience. It can provide them with a valuable means of communication, especially before they can speak verbally. You might not realize you can start teaching signs to your child as early as six months, as babies can begin to understand and use simple signs.

Recognize that each child, especially those with autism, is unique. Due to this, their learning styles may vary. When teaching sign language to your child, tailor your approach based on the child’s preferences, strengths, and sensitivities. Remember that their pace of learning can vary. It’s critical to pay attention to your child’s cues and adjust your teaching approach accordingly. 

You might want to consider working collaboratively with professionals, such as speech or occupational therapists, who have experience supporting children with autism. Even without formal training, teaching sign language is not only possible, but it can be fun and incredibly rewarding.

There are strategies you can use to make the learning process more effective. Below, we’ve listed some steps you can take to teach sign language to your child.

Choose Key Signs and Be Consistent

Begin with essential signs relevant to your child’s needs and interests. Common signs include “more,” “eat,” “milk,” “sleep,” and “all done.” Keep in mind that consistency is crucial. Use signs consistently in different contexts. 

Have Patience and Flexibility

Be patient, flexible, and encouraging in your teaching approach. Children may take time to pick up signs. Celebrate their efforts, even if the signs aren’t perfect. Consider alternative signs or adapt your teaching method if a particular sign is challenging.

Have Visual Supports and Make It Fun

Children with autism often respond well to visual supports. Use visual aids such as pictures, charts, books with sign language illustrations, or videos to reinforce the signs. This can provide a visual reference that aids understanding. You can turn learning into a game. Use animated facial expressions and enthusiasm to make signing engaging for your child. Children often learn well through visual cues.

Utilize a Structured Routine and Repetition

Many children benefit from structured routines. Integrate sign language into a consistent daily routine so the child can anticipate when to use certain signs. For example, use the “eat” sign during meals or the “bath” sign during bathtime. Repetition helps reinforce learning. Repeat signs frequently and use them consistently because repetition helps reinforce learning.

Encourage Imitation

Encourage your child to imitate your signs. You can also use mirrors to help them see themselves making the signs.

Tips for Teaching Sign Language

Embarking on the journey of teaching sign language to your child with autism can be a rewarding and effective means of communication. As a parent or caregiver, your role in this process is pivotal. Here are some practical tips and strategies designed to make the experience enriching and tailored to the unique needs of your child. By understanding the nuances of teaching sign language to individuals on the autism spectrum, you can create a supportive and engaging environment that fosters effective communication skills.

Be Mindful of Sensory Considerations

Be aware of sensory sensitivities. Some children with autism may be sensitive to certain textures or sensations. Choose signs and teaching materials that are comfortable for the child.

Incorporate Special Interests

If the child has specific interests, use signs related to those interests. This can make the learning process more engaging and relevant for them.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Reinforce successful sign language communication with positive reinforcement. This could be verbal praise, a favorite activity, or a small reward. The type of positive reinforcement you use is highly dependent on the child. Some children favor verbal praise, while others prefer more tangible items.

Provide Clear Instructions and Pair Signs With Spoken Words

Children with autism often benefit from clear, concise instructions. Use simple language to demonstrate and connect signs with spoken words to support language development. This dual approach can enhance communication skills. Remember to always repeat instructions as needed.

Breakdown Complex Signs

If a sign is complex, break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. Teach each part separately before combining them into the full sign.

Provide a Gradual Introduction Before Expanding Their Vocabulary

Introduce signs by beginning with a few essential signs, then gradually expanding the vocabulary. This can prevent overwhelming the child. Once your child has mastered a few basic signs, you can slowly introduce new signs.

American Sign Language Video at Blue Parachute

If you want to learn more American Sign Language to help your child on the spectrum, you’ve come to the right place. We have videos available at Blue Parachute that can serve as autism home support services. Whether you are a parent or teacher or if you are on the autism spectrum, our videos were written by Licensed and Certified Behavior Therapists. These are available with subscription pricing to ensure everyone can afford the videos they need.

Before teaching sign language for autism, always consider the individual needs and preferences of the child and be responsive to their cues. If possible, involve professionals specializing in autism to provide guidance and support. Additionally, remember that progress may take time, and celebrating small achievements is important.

Use our online form and contact us today. If you still have concerns, visit our FAQ page, where we answer many questions. Get started with our helpful videos for communication, life, safety, and many other essential skills.


Related Readings:

Blue Parachute – Who We Help

Blue Parachute – How We Help


NIH – What Is American Sign Language (ASL)?

Autism Parenting Magazine – Benefits of Sign Language for Autism