SIGNED SPEECH OR
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
Sign language was first developed as a means of
communication for hearing-impaired individuals. Sign language has
also been used to teach people with developmental disabilities who
have little or no communication skills. Teaching autistic children
how to use sign language is not as common a practice today as in
previous years, possibly due to an increase in the use of computerized
com-munication systems. However, research suggests that teaching
sign language along with speech will likely accelerate a person’s
ability to speak (Creedon, 1976; Kopchick, Rombach, & Smilovitz,
1975; Larson, 1971; Miller & Miller, 1973). Teaching sign language
and speech at the same time is often referred to as Signed Speech,
Simultaneous Communication, or Total Communication.
Sign language is useful for those individuals
who have little or no verbal abilities or communication skills.
It is not recommended for those who have a relatively large vocabulary.
Furthermore, persons with a variety of functioning levels can be
taught to use sign language. Many aberrant
behaviors associated with autism
and other developmental disabilities, such as aggression,
are often attributed to an inability to communicate to others. Signed
Speech may, at the very least, allow the person to communicate using
signs and may stimulate verbal language skills. When teaching a
person to use sign language, another possible benefit may be the
facilitation of their attentiveness to social gestures of others
as well as of themselves.
There are several different forms of sign language;
and when implementing Signed Speech, it is best to use the ‘Signing
Exact English’ or “Signed English" method. This form of sign
language uses the same syntax as spoken language, and this method
will help facilitate the use of syntactic rules of spoken language.
For example, a statement using both Signed English and speech would
be: "Look at the table." In contrast, the syntax of American
Sign Language would be: ‘Table look.’ Since the majority people
do not understand sign language, it may be ideal to use some form
of picture system or computerized communication device in addition
to Signed Speech to enable communication with those who do not understand
When beginning a sign language program, it is
best to start with signs expressing basic needs, such as the need
to eat, drink, and use the toilet. In this way, the person will
be motivated to use the signs to communicate needs. In addition,
it may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few months to teach
the first sign; but as the person acquires more and more signs,
they will be much easier and faster to learn.
As mentioned above, learning to speak is usually
accelerated by teaching sign language and speech at the same time.
One possible reason is that both forms of communication stimulate
the same area of the brain. PET Scans, which measure the amount
of activity occurring in the brain at a given time, indicate that
the same area of the brain is activated when a person talks or when
a person uses signs (Poizner, Klima, & Bellugi, 1990). Thus,
when utilizing the Signed Speech method, the area of the brain involved
in speech production is receiving stimulation from two sources (signing
and speaking) rather than stimulation from one source (signing or
In conclusion, teaching sign language to people
with autism and other developmental disabilities does not interfere
with learning to talk; and there is research evidence indicating
that teaching sign language along with speech will actually accelerate
Benson Schaeffer, Ph.D., has written an excellent
book on Signed Speech. You can write to him to learn more about
his book. Dr. Schaeffer’s address is: Emanuel Medical Office Bldg.,
501 N. Graham; Suite 365, Portland, OR 97227.
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