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Moving Away from Sign Language and Towards Other Forms of AAC

When I started working as an SLP, I was a huge supporter of introducing signs to the children I worked with.   Why?  Well first off I have a strong background in American Sign Language (ASL).  When I first started with children who were severely delayed* using signs was a comfort to me, it was something I knew how to do well. Parents were more receptive to signs than using pictures. As the years have gone by, I have introduced less and less signs to the children I work with and I am more choosy about who I introduce sign to. Here are some reasons why:


1. Not everyone knows how to sign.  While in some ways it has gained popularity with the introduction of baby sign programs, the number of people who could communicate with the child is limited.  What if there is an emergency and the child has to communicate?  Will the person who is communicating with them understand them? Added to that ASL vocabulary (which many people borrow signs from) can vary greatly from region to region. Will the person know the regional variations  that could affect communication? Pictures or written words are much more easy for the lay person to understand.  

2. The next hurdle is what kind of sign system are you going to use?  Are you going to use proper ASL?  ASL is a different language with it's own grammar.  Do you or the parents know those rules and have enough vocabulary to teach their child to communicate?  Probably not.  I liken it to asking a parent who only speaks Italian to communicate with their child in English.  We don't do it because we want strong language models.** 

Are you going to use some form of signed English?  If you do then many signs you use will look different from ASL signs.  Also all the English morphemes (e.g -ing) and functor words (e.g. is, to, at) are going to have their own signs. You run into the same challenge as you do when introduce a system with pictures, people end up using signs telegraphically.  We know that telegraphic communication is not ideal. 

3. In my experience, many children who have severe language delays also have fine motor delays.  This can make being able to form the signs correctly challenging.  As a result, the child, or the SLP, or the parent modifies it.  So unless you know how that child's sign for that word, people who do sign will have troubles communicating with him or her.  Fine motor delays can also mean that combining signs into phrases and sentences could be more difficult.  This limits the child's capacity to communicate. Picture systems of communication have developed direct and indirect access to those pictures.

4. There has been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in the media these last few years. I wonder if this is what we are doing to the Deaf*** community when we borrow signs?  The Deaf community has not had a good history with teachers or SLPs.  Should we be borrowing signs from them when, unless the child is Deaf, they will not be apart of that community? Apparently all those classes on Deaf culture and power dynamics stuck.

5.  Before the advent of iPads and tablets, some parents felt using speech generating devices (SGD) drew attention to their child's differences.  This was particularly true for children who used AAC to augment their speech.  Now that people carry around smartphones and iPad/tablets everywhere, those children stand out less.  This can still be a challenge with low tech forms of communication but it seems a slightly smaller hurdle these days.  

6. People have a greater access to speech generating programs with the advent of Proloquo, LAMP and such apps.  Where I live, children who might not qualify for other SGDs now have an alternative means to access speech generating programs.  As well, where I work now has a greater access to some of these apps.

7. Pictures, even lines drawings, are often easier to understand than signs (my opinion).  While some signs closely resemble gestures, many many signs are more abstract.  As well,  pictures help provide the child longer time to help better understand the message than many signs. The pictures don't "disappear" like signs do.  Non-verbal and low verbal children tend to learn to point to pictures faster than learning the different signs (my opinion only). 

8.  As my education on using core words, PODD and even PECs grew, I was able to educate team members. These other members then went and did their own education on using pictures to communicate. I was able to get better buy in (not perfect but growing).  As a result we were able to introduce more and more picture forms of communication.

Signing has a place in the world of AAC but it must be applied as thoughtfully as other forms of communication.

*These children did not have a hearing loss.
**There are programs to help provide children with a hearing loss and their parents supports form the Deaf community, including language models. 
***Deaf = someone who associates with Deaf culture and is usually involved in the Deaf community.  Most have some form of hearing loss but not necessarily.