Families of nonverbal children with special needs look for many ways to communicate with their children. It is frustrating, both for parent and child, if the child wants or needs something but can't relay that need, so the parent doesn't know what to do. Indeed, many children become so frustrated that they act out when they are unable to communicate. In reality, virtually all behavior is communication, whether a child is non-verbal or not. Families may search for various methods of assistive and augmentative communication which may involve PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), Go Talk, DynaVox, etc. that are beyond the scope of this article.
LOOKING AT THIS BOTH AS A MOM & AS SOMEONE IN THE FIELD
This issue will be examined from both a personal and professional perspective. My daughter Stephanie was nonverbal due to autism until she was almost six years old. Ironically, I had a sort of special education background before she was born, with a B.A. in Psychology and Nursery/Elementary Education teaching certification. I had taken every special education course offered, including beginning and advanced American Sign Language (ASL).
Stephanie used to hit and pinch her-self and literally pull out her hair when she wasn't able to tell us what she needed. Her expressive language (what she could say) was far below her receptive language (what she under-stood). When the early intervention team told me that we should try sign language, I hesitated.
QUESTIONS & A LITTLE HOMEWORK
Why would I use sign language if my child wasn't hearing impaired? How would my child learn to speak if we were signing? Would she ever learn to talk? So, it was time to do some home-work.
Research shows that for even very young children like toddlers, signing helps increase their vocabulary (see the Mayo Clinic's article "Baby sign language: A good idea?" at www.mayoclinic.org/baby-sign-language/expert-answers/FAQ-20057980 and "Sign language touted as a way to help infants communicate early on" from the American Academy of Pediatrics at http://aapnews.aappublications.org/content/19/2/54.extract.) This sounds like a first positive step in the right direction. Later research indicated that Total Communication, speaking and signing simultaneously, increases vocabulary and improves speech (see www.autism.com/index.php/advocacy_signing for an explanation.) Start off slowly, perhaps just labeling important things with one word. Then families can start using phrases or sentences.
My daughter and I used to take walks around the block and I'd point to something then say and sign what we saw (e.g. tree, flower, dog, etc.) We also used storybooks and videos in sign language that had fun games and fairytales. I had to brush up on my ASL because there was a 10 year gap between my college days and when I had my daughter. I was lucky that we lived near Katzenbach School (now called NJ School for the Deaf) and they had beginning and advanced classes. …