Parents often ask me whether teaching sign language or using pictures to help their child communicate will inhibit their child’s ability to speak? The answer is NO! In fact, just the opposite happens.
It may seem counter intuitive, but research supports the fact that by learning to communicate with signs or pictures, a child is actually more likely to speak if they are able to do so. Pictures or signs can’t make a child talk, but they can facilitate the communication process, leading to speech.
Did you know that many children on the autism spectrum have oral-motor problems that make it difficult for them to coordinate the movements of their mouths to make the sounds of speech? This is often called apraxia or dyspraxia and although not unique to children on the spectrum, it is often seen in this population.
If you have an oral-motor coordination problem, the pressure to speak volitionally, or “on demand” (like when you’re trying to get a child to imitate you) can actually make the speech worse! By using signs and/or pictures, the pressure is taken off the mouth and as a result, speech may occur more spontaneously when it is taught in conjunction with nonverbal approaches like sign language and pictures.
Can you imagine the frustration of trying to communicate when your mouth won’t do what your brain tells it to do? Add to that the low frustration tolerance (giving up easily) and poor impulse control (wanting what you want when you want it) and you have a recipe for avoiding communication at the least and increasing behavioral problems and tantrums at the most.
By introducing sign language or pictures, all of the above frustrations begin to dissipate and the opportunities for successful communication are created. Many children who have the oral-motor difficulties often have other motor-coordination problems and for them, sign language may not be a good option. Their signs may be so imprecise as to be difficult to understand. That’s not to say that they might not learn some approximations to signs that may still be useful.
The acronym PECS has come to be synonymous with the use of pictures for many people in the autism community. PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System and is a system developed by Andrew Bondy, Ph.D. and Lori Frost, M.S. in Delaware. It is a specific communication system that can be used initially to help a child learn to communicate and then discontinued once speech emerges, or it may be a primary means for a non-verbal child to communicate.
In the last decade, many parents have chosen to teach their “neuro-typical” children sign language before they learn to speak in order to facilitate communication and reduce frustration.
Whether or not you choose to teach sign language and/or pictures to a child should be a decision that is based upon the needs of the individual child. Whatever means of communication you choose, everyone involved with that child should know the child’s system in order to respond to and encourage all attempts at communication.