Traditionally, sign language is only thought of in the context of either the deaf community, or to use with children who are hearing impaired. However, today, there are multiple populations of hearing children with special needs in which sign language has proven extremely beneficial.
Some of these disabilities include Apraxia, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, speech and language delays, Down Syndrome, sensory issues, learning disabilities, medically fragile children, and varying degrees of cognitive disabilities. Sign language is also used other developmental disabilities, as well as in children with severe behavioural challenges.
Recent research indicates multiple advantages in using sign language to help children with special needs. The overall development of speech, language, social, emotional, and academic skills can all be enhanced through the use of signing. Sign language appears to accelerate the acquisition of speech by stimulating certain areas of the brain that are associated with speech and language.
Also, signing provides overall language stimulation and conceptual information that enhances vocabulary development in children. Since many children with special needs exhibit difficulty with expressive language, sign language provides these children with access to communication while strengthening their ability to produce speech.
Sign language also increases social and emotional development in children with special needs. Signing helps to expand social opportunities, which in turn naturally enhances overall self-esteem. These children, as they develop better communication skills through signing, often become more independent. In addition, the brain makes connections through both auditory and visual input. Since children with special needs often have other impairments, that affect normal development in the brain, sign language helps these areas of the brain that are linked to the development of speech and language. Also, language is the primary building block for learning and academic development.
One of the most recent developments includes the use of sign language with children with Autism. Autism is a neurological developmental disorder which results in impairment of social skills, language development, and behaviour. Research today indicates that one of the most effective ways to teach speech to children with Autism is through the use of sign language. Signing increased the chances of children with Autism learning to hear spoken language. It provides these children with an alternative mode of communication.
It is relatively easy for parents to learn and to utilize it with their children. Since sign language is more iconic than speech, individual signs can be more easily grasped: Recent research has also discovered that sign language is most likely processed in the right hemisphere of the brain. Since children with Autism have left hemisphere brain impairment, signing may be easier for them to comprehend.
Since language is one of the primary building blocks for learning and academic development, sign language is useful for children with special needs because it stimulates intellectual development. Using signs also helps children to retain information longer because it supplements speech input. Utilizing many different modes of input strengthens the connections in the brain and therefore greatly benefits overall academic development in these children.
By Ellen Lunz
* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism and special needs experience.