Communication is difficult for many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD); between 25 and 35% of those with ASD are minimally verbal. Because of this, many parents, teachers, and therapists search for ways for an autistic child to communicate. 

With the popularity of touchscreen devices, many speech pathologists are quick to consider a digital form of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) because it’s as simple as downloading a speech app. In many cases, high-tech speech apps are a great way to go. But American Sign Language (ASL) is a low-tech form of AAC that has one big great advantage: It’s extremely portable, with no device charging necessary.

What Is ASL? 

ASL is a visual language originally developed in early 19th century America as a way for the deaf to communicate. While it was not designed for people with ASD, many autistic people have found it useful. There is also some overlap between autism and deafness, so people with both conditions may use ASL as a primary means of communication.

Autism & Sign Language

For many with communication problems, it comes down to auditory processing issues. This means that their hearing might be fine, but the brain is reading auditory input and scrambling it to something incomprehensible. Communicating in sign language is a way to overcome that kind of comprehension issue as there is no hearing necessary. Even if your autistic child is somewhat verbal, they might be able to benefit from communicating in ASL.

My autistic son, now 15 years old, has had a real interest in ASL through the years, starting in preschool. For him, it’s more of a casual hobby, but for others, it can be a lifeline for communication.

Getting Started With ASL 

Interested in learning more about ASL and want to know if it’s right for your child? Here are some ways to get started. 

  1. Talk to your child’s speech therapist about incorporating some beginning signs.

Many speech therapists, especially those who work with toddlers and pre-school age children, know that sign language can be a great way to enhance language learning. Contrary to popular belief, it will not interfere with your child’s speech development. Instead, the eye contact that comes with using ASL may enhance your autistic child’s communication skills. 

Talk to your child’s speech therapist about incorporating some of the beginning words to see if they catch on. Some first signs to include are “more,” “thank you,” “please,” “all done,” and “toilet.” Remember that everybody will have to learn these signs to interact with your child, so make sure that all caregivers and family members are in on the action.

  1. Watch some music videos with your child that include ASL.

Music is a fantastic way for children with autism to start learning ASL. Not only is sharing a music video a great social activity for your child, but you will both be learning signs together. Rachel Coleman’s Signing Time was my son’s first introduction to signing, specifically with her fantastic “In a House” video

All of her videos incorporate ASL with the song, so if you have a music-loving autistic child, this is a great way to start. You can also check out We Play Along on YouTube and many current pop songs in ASL by various YouTubers

  1. Learn some basic words and how to fingerspell.

Once you and your child have some basic ASL vocabulary, it is time to expand into fingerspelling. There are many different YouTube videos, books, and posters (including some free printables) that offer a way into learning how to fingerspell. There’s even a new lens on Snapchat that can coach your fingerspelling. 

Finding different ways to learn is key to keeping it fresh and fun. While fingerspelling is not as common as the basic signs for words, it will be necessary to communicate using fingerspelling for words you don’t know the sign for or to spell out names. When all else fails, there’s an app for that; try the ASL Fingerspelling app to practice even more. 

Moving Beyond the Basics

If you and your child are serious about incorporating ASL into your lives, you will eventually need to find a class or tutor to help you go further. Many local libraries, churches, universities, and other organizations hold ASL classes in communities. 

The American Society for Deaf Children offers both national and state resources to help you find organizations, schools, and camps. There are also several free online classes available, including Signschool, StartASL, or American Sign Language University (ASLU).  More advanced learners might want to sign up for courses with Gallaudet University’s ASL Connect. 

If you are considering ASL for your autistic child, you may also be considering other low-tech forms of AAC, such as PECS. PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System and involves communicating through small laminated picture cards, kept in a book with velcro. Both ASL and PECS can be effective, but it has been shown that ASL may accelerate verbal communication. It is worthwhile to offer both PECS and ASL to a child and let the child guide you as to their preference.