By: Cheryl Esch
Language delays in individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities are quite common. Often the child will make sounds and syllables to communicate, but do not typically display word approximations or whole words to speak. For those children with little to no speech, language acquisition should be targeted. Vocal verbal behavior is important but can often be difficult to teach, so it is important to look at easier alternative forms of communication that they may be able to acquire.
One form of teaching language acquisition involves that of teaching one to mand (request) for items using sign language. Several signs for various items can be found online (e.g., signingsavvy.com, babysignlanguage.com). Sometimes certain signs can be difficult to imitate; it is okay to modify these signs making them easier to perform.
Sign manding (sign language and vocal modeling paired together simultaneously) can be shaped easily through hand over hand prompting. This process involves first finding items that the child is highly motivated for (i.e., frequently requests/seeks access to). When it is obvious that they want access to the item, model (demonstrate) the sign for them saying the name of the item at the same time. If they do not imitate this response within 5 seconds, they should be physically prompted hand over hand to sign for the item. The item that they are requesting should then be delivered. It is important to remember that fading (reducing) this prompt as soon as possible is important so that they do not become dependent upon this.
Again, model the sign simultaneously with the vocal model as discussed above. This time if they sign for the item independently, a large portion of the item should be delivered (e.g, whole cookie vs. part of a cookie, whole juice box vs. a sip from a juice box). If this does not occur, the sign should be prompted two more times. Upon the third time deliver a smaller portion of the item.
Finally, teaching a form of functional communication like sign manding to those children with little to no speech is important. It can help to facilitate a way for the child to express their wants and needs, as well as aid in the reduction of problem behavior that occurs when they cannot express these requests.