Communication Series: An Introduction to Sign Language

An Introduction to Sign Language


Whilst most people are aware of the obvious benefits to using sign language with deaf people or those who have hearing impairments, the benefits of using signing with people with developmental disorders, including autism, are becoming better researched. Auditory information can be difficult to process for many autistic people and the inclusion of visual information to process alongside the auditory forms the basis of a number of teaching methods for autistic children.

Sign language also has a benefit over other methods of AAC in that it isn’t reliant on another object. There are no PECS cards to lose, no letter boards to get scuffed up and ripped, or tablets to go flat precisely when you need them. On the other hand, the use of sign language does rely on a certain amount of fine motor skills and whilst this can be less of an issue for signing such as Makaton or Sign-along where only key words are signed, it is a key factor in other sign languages where more of the words are signed. The other downside to using sign language is the fact that not many people know it. With very little guess work people could work out that being handed a card with “biscuit” on it meant the individual handing it over wanted a biscuit – however they are less likely to understand that tapping your opposite elbow with your hand is the BSL for “biscuit”. Nevertheless, signing is still a valuable and relevant means of AAC.


Finding Resources and Where to Start?

Ethnologue (which is a fascinating website) lists 138 sign languages used world wide and this probably doesn’t cover all of them as there are no doubt some undocumented sign languages, and it does not include any sign languages that have been adapted from others (e.g Makaton or Sign-along). How easy it is to find resources on each sign language depends largely on the sign language itself. Internet searches will reveal loads of results for American Sign, Auslan (Australian Sign), British Sign and a few of the other European sign languages. Resources for other languages vary greatly. YouTube can be a brilliant resource and there are many people on YouTube who post regular videos on signing.

If all that fails then local libraries may be an option or nearby university libraries. Again the availabilty will vary depending on where you live. There’s also the option of purchasing books online through places like Amazon or eBay or by purchasing through specialist websites. Learning sign through books is more difficult that learning through watching videos or from a real person but it is certainly an option to get you started.

There are also training courses (both online and offline) for sign language that you can go on but often, as with many training courses, these are either offered only to organisations, expensive, and very time consuming. Of course learning a new language will be time consuming overall, but I’m specifically talking about the fact that often you have to complete a 10 hour level 1 course before progressing onto level 2 and so on. There are also differences in what you want to learn depending on who you are planning to teach sign language to. Many language courses (not just sign) start out by teaching things like “My name is…”, “I have x brothers…”, “I like to go swimming”, which might be a more useful approach for some adults who do not speak but might not be if you have a young autistic child or a young child with Downs Syndrome. In the latter example, getting their needs and wants expressed is probably more important in the beginning that telling people their names and family structure. Nevertheless it might be an option that is worth looking into.

There is no way I am going to be able to provide information on every one of the 138 sign languages worldwide – especially as I have only used BSL, Makaton and Sign-along. I will try to provide varied resources or links when I do discuss signing, and if anyone else has any useful links to provide then leave a comment.

Useful Links

Ethnologue Sign Languages of the World

British Sign Language

American Sign Language




Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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