Using Sign Language to Help Move Your Child Along the Language Continuum

Amy shares how she used sign language to help bridge the gap in communication as her son learned to speak.

baby signing timeBarclay was diagnosed with a severe language delay at around 20 months and later more specifically a disorder called Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS).  He was in speech therapy, but progress was slow.  I started learning that sign language can help bridge the gap in communication skills for late talkers.  I found a program called Baby Signing Time by Rachel Coleman and we started using it with Barclay a few months before his second birthday.

Some people believe that teaching a child to use sign language to communicate takes away their motivation to talk but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It actually has the opposite effect.  What I found with Barclay was that he would not even attempt to repeat a new word until after he had learned the sign for it.  In a matter of just a few months, his ability to communicate went from almost nothing to 50 or more words and more than 100 signs.  Some parents don’t realize that language is a continuum. Toddlers don’t just wake up one morning and start talking. It is a long process. So children with language delays are often stuck somewhere on that continuum.  Sign Language can be a great tool to help move them along.

I reached out to Rachel, who in addition to creating the Signing Time program was recently named Executive Director of the American Society for Deaf Children, and she said, “I  have worked with MANY children with apraxia. The good news is this… your child can access language. He can hear. He just can’t get the words out of his mouth. He can think! Many children with apraxia and many children with autism say their first words when they pair it with a sign. For some reason, the visual, or tactile, or the 3 dimensional, or the kinesthetic aspect of sign helps make the jump from “thought” to “word said out loud.”

One of the first skills a toddler needs to be able to do before learning to talk is to use and understand gestures.  Even babies start to learn this early.  They point to a toy they want or put their arms up as a way to ask to be picked up.  But for an older toddler who has more complex thoughts than an infant, common gestures aren’t enough.  Sign language gives them more complex gestures so they can communicate.  This helps reduce frustration between the child and caregivers and build their vocabulary.  

From about age 2 to 3, sign language was a major part of our communication with Barclay.  However, as he slowly started to learn a word, he’d drop the sign on his own so we’d follow his lead.  We kept teaching him new ones and dropping the old ones until he got to a point where he would attempt to repeat any word we said.  At that point, we knew the sign language had done its job!  It had bridged that gap!

Barclay communicates pretty well verbally to us and we’ve long stopped teaching him new signs.  There are a few that he has held on to and we accept those as communication from him. I encourage you that if you have a late talker in your family adding sign language into your intervention toolbox will have great benefits!

Did you or do you use sign language with your child?  What are your experiences?  Please comment and share!

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
– Ignacio Estrada




Author: bigabilities

Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 3-30! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with 20 years experience, a freelance writer, and special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.

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