Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Bridging Languages

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Bridging Languages

Article excerpt


Although Sign Language is generally considered to be a means of communication used by the deaf community at large, it can also be beneficial to hearing people and others with various disabilities. A person with mental retardation, Down syndrome, or a cleft palette may have trouble communicating due to speech delay issues or from physical challenges. Because of the frustration that they feel, they may display negative social behaviors, including tantrums, aggression, anxiety, or even self-injury. Additionally, there are usually communication issues with children who have autism. They sometimes struggle with spoken language and Sign Language can create a way for them to strengthen their language development, especially during those critical early years of development.

Children with autism may sometimes appear to be living in their own world and show very little interest in others. They may be socially unaware, avoiding eye contact and showing limited attachment to others. But when a child is able to express and communicate thoughts, desires, and needs, they are much more likely to seek out social interactions.

Conventional teaching has maintained that teaching Sign Language to people with autism or delayed speech will interfere with their learning to talk, but research has shown that it will, in fact, accelerate verbal communication. In many situations, Sign Language can be used as a bridge between a gestured, pictorial language to a verbal, spoken language. The bridge is the connection that is made by communicating using Sign Language, which can help to establish connections in the brain that are necessary for encoding spoken language.

During the summer of 2007, I was hired to work in a special education program at a local community center. I was to use my Sign Language interpreting skills to work with two of three triplets who were four years of age. Both were diagnosed with autism and neither had developed communication skills. To protect their identity, I will refer to them with fictitious names--Andy and Gail. Their parents had begun to work with them at home, and teachers were working with them outside of school, teaching them Sign Language and a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which is an augmentative communication system developed to help individuals quickly acquire a functional means of communication. PECS is appropriate for individuals who do not use speech or who may speak with limited effectiveness, such as those who have articulation or motor planning difficulties, limited communicative partners, lack of initiative in communication, etc.

The children's parents found that they were not getting the results that they wanted with the PECS system so my job was to continue teaching them Sign Language, one-on-one throughout the summer, in an effort to stimulate their verbal skills. I had never done this type of work before but had heard of people teaching Sign Language to young children who have speech delays. I had worked with my own three-year-old son, teaching him Sign Language while I was learning it myself to see how quickly a young child could learn it. It was very beneficial for him in expressing himself when he couldn't find the right words to do so.

In the preliminary stages of my research, I spoke to as many people as I could find within the deaf community as well as to several other Sign Language interpreters. I also spoke with a good friend, whose 15-year-old son has autism. She told me that he had trouble learning how to speak so she and her husband worked with him at home and with his teachers at school, teaching him Sign Language until his language developed. His speech did eventually develop, and he speaks very well now.

Next, I consulted with a biology professors at Westchester Community College regarding how the brain functions in terms of language development. Professor Michael Priano explained that the temporal lobe, which is mostly on the left side of the brain, deals with the different aspects of language. …

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