I look at that paragraph now and all of the shortcomings of sign language jump out at me (it took months for her expressive signs to come, she only learned dozens-not hundreds-of signs, despite having expressive signs I still had to make a translation video for her school staff to understand her). And before I start discussing the limitations of sign language for kids with speech delays, I need to be clear about a few things. Here are my disclaimers: First, ASL (American Sign Language) is an absolutely beautiful, complete language. For families who are a part of the Deaf community, ASL makes complete sense. This article is completely irrelevant to that experience. Second, I think it is valid for children to learn sign language, and I think sign language can be a great component of communication. I'll get to where it fits in below.
But children who are slow to develop language, who have "speech delays", who have "complex communication needs", who are "nonverbal", who have apraxia/dyspraxia/oral motor planning difficulties, who have CP or autism or genetic syndromes, children who will NOT be attending a school for the deaf or supported in the Deaf community----these children should not rely on sign language as an alternative method of communication.
1. Most people don't understand sign language. Children need to be able to speak to EVERYONE they meet (well, if they want to). Grandparents, cousins, the guy who works at the deli that you go to on Thursdays, their bus driver, the secretary at their school, the kid that he just met at the playground who has Spider-Man on his shirt, the nurse in the doctor's office, the doctor, the grandparents of a friend at a birthday party, the lady in front of you in the Starbucks line who is asking about whether she likes the movie Frozen, the teacher, the substitute teacher, the gym teacher. These people do not all understand sign language. Which leads to . . .
2. A child should not need to rely on a translator. (Even if that translator is you, and you are awesome.) Here's why: it forces them into the backseat of their own conversations. Imagine if you went out with your spouse (or best friend) and every time someone spoke to you, you signed and your partner had to speak back for you. You're one-step-removed. Kids who are struggling with language issues, who are learning the ebb and flow of conversation, need to be empowered with a way to speak up, to step in to conversation, to join. (Passivity is a big personality trait that develops among kids who have speech delays---they're used to other people speaking for them. As a side note, the other big trait is anger/tantrums because they have no other ways to get their points across, and behavior becomes their method of communicating.) On top of that, our kids (who often have multiple challenges) are already shadowed by their parents enough. I didn't want to have to be all up in every conversation that Maya ever has.
3. Fine motor issues lead to garbled signs. Maya does not have the dexterity to move her fingers in ways that would allow for the clean, clear formation of the vast majority of signs (hence the "Maya Sign Language" translation video---even people who speak fluent ASL wouldn't understand her signs). Teaching sign language to nonverbal children with fine motor issues as their primary means of communication is basically spending hours helping them learn a language that effectively no one (besides you and your child) speaks. It doesn't make sense.
4. I think that AAC is faster to learn than sign. (Please note the "I think", as this one is totally anecdotal.) I learned ASL alongside of Maya, and then I learned to be an AAC user alongside of Maya. AAC is, in our experience, much faster. I wondered if this was because Maya's motor challenges make it difficult for her to execute new movements, but then I realized that I'm able to learn words via AAC more quickly as well. Her app can hold over 13,000 words. I don't think I would be able to remember that many signs.
Will (19 months) is learning to speak. He is also learning sign language. He is also learning AAC. This type of multimodal whole-language approach is, I believe, where ASL fits appropriately for children who have complex communication needs. It's great to have a child who has multiple ways of communicating, and there's no downside to teaching ASL in conjunction with using a more-universally-understood AAC device/app. But, in my mind, the AAC is not optional.
See for yourself:
The criticism: Here are the most common complaints that I hear from people when I share my thoughts on the limitations of signing:
1. Signing is better because kids always have their hands with them, you don't need a cumbersome binder of cards or an iPad. And what about places like the bathtub where a kid can't have an iPad anyway? Maya's iPad mini isn't cumbersome, and there are several option now (like a waterproof electronics camping bag) that would make it fully submersible in a bathtub. But that's totally beside the point, because signing is great for you to use with your kid----as long as you're also providing them with a way to communicate with the non-signing population.
2. My child loves sign language and has learned over 200 signs! That's so great! But most 3 year olds already speak over 200 words, and by age 4 we're well into the thousands. That's a lot more than 200. Keep signing but make sure there is another way for her to express the thousands of words that she likely understands but does not know how to sign.
3. It's his choice to use sign language. I'm certainly not going to argue with the choice of a child who has communication challenges. Obviously, how he communicates will be his choice. But (in my
Our kids with complex communication needs need the same early access to AAC that many of them have to sign language. Sign language is a great component of multimodal communication, but without an AAC option that can be universally understood we are limiting their ability to independently interact with peers, family, friends, and professionals.