Signing for children with autism

Steph ASD Teacher
Signing is not just used for and by children who have hearing difficulties or who are deaf. Signing is used in many schools teaching autistic children as a way of reinforcing speech along with symbol use. Sign can help children learn key language. For some non verbal children, single signs can be taught as a primary form of communication by repeatedly modeling the sign in the correct context in order for the children to learn to use the sign spontaneously to request an item or need.

As a teacher, I use sign in the classroom by:

  • Signing key words whenever I say them. Pairing spoken language with sign and symbol can help a child learn the key language.
  • Teaching children signs in the correct context in order for the child to learn the sign. For example when teaching the sign for ‘more’ (often the first sign taught) when in the correct context for a child wanting more, maybe the child is reaching for a biscuit or putting up their hands in order you to continue jumping with them; I would say “more” at the same time as modelling the sign for ‘more’ in order for the child to imitate. If the child will not imitate the sign then I would start by physically modelling the sign by taking the child’s hands and moving them into the ‘more’ sign at the same time as saying the word “more”. This paired action is repeated over different motivating contexts in order for the child to learn how to spontaneously sign ‘more’.

BSL and Makaton

British Sign Language is taught to and used by children who are deaf or who have hearing difficulties. BSL is an official language of the deaf community where every word has a sign. BSL has it’s own grammar as well as word order and there are different regional dialects. For children with ASD, not every word is signed, it is only the key words as well as spoken language. This is often referred to as Makaton. Makaton is a language programme using speech as well as key signs and symbols to reinforce key words. Makaton uses signs from the sign language of the particular country it’s being used in so therefore most of the signs used in Makaton in Great Britain are taken from British Sign Language. Find out more about Makaton here.

Last year I had a non verbal child in the class who went from imitating single signs to putting 2 and 3 signs together spontaneously! Both I and his family were very pleased with his progress but I was very aware that once this child went home, he was unable to use his knowledge of signs and communicate this way with his family as his family did not know the signs. I therefore created short video clips of the signs he was using so the family could learn the signs at home.

Find a motivator…

Food can often be a great motivator for children and is therefore a good starting point for teaching children some signs. The following videos feature signs that are commonly used in schools across Great Britain although some signs may differ depending on the school or child. In order to have consistency with school and home, I recommend checking with your child’s teacher whether in class they are using Makaton or different signs.

Banana

Carrot

 

Please let me know if you would like to learn any other signs or post a comment below.

Lesson and activity visual instructions – teaching resources for children with autism

During my subject, class or group lessons I will give each child a visual step by step instruction resource that me and my teaching assistants will have made using a symbol computer program (My school uses ‘Communicate In Print’) I print the symbol resources I’ve made and then laminate them.

The instructions give the children a visual step by step guide to the activity. This gives the children a visual structure to the lesson where the beginning and ending is clear. Visual step by step guides promote independence as the children are able to see the steps first and are not completely relying on a verbal instruction from an adult. More able children who can read are able to follow visual instructions with increasing independence as they read each step before undertaking the task.

Here is an example of a booklet for children who understand symbols but are not yet reading and possibly have a short attention span (hence no more than 2 symbols per age).

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

The large symbols are easy to see and focus on for a child with a short attention span. Only 1 symbol per page allows the child to focus only on that symbol instruction rather than seeing multiple instructions on 1 page. Before beginning each step of the task we will look at the symbol, point to the symbol and then say and sign the symbol. When the step is complete, I will say “…….  has finished” and the children will then move a red square onto  the box next to the symbol to highlight that step has finished. (See photos above – when a child puts a red square next to the symbol, this means the step has finished). This routine can be taught using physical and verbal prompts initially before reducing them as the child becomes more familiar and confident with the routine.

For the children who are more able and perhaps recognise a few words, the following visual instructions would be more suitable for the same activity. As the child becomes more able to read and understand text, these instructions can simply be written bullet points.

Visual instructions

The next instructions follow the SCERTS model (http://www.scerts.com/) for visual in-task schedules. The steps to be undertaken are on the green side and when the step is finished, the child moves it to the red side. These instructions show a clear beginning and end to the activity. I make these instructions for the children in my class that recognise some words or can read. After completing a step I ask the children “whats next?” and they read the next step on the green side. I will then model the task for the children so they can see how to do it before they begin the task. As you can see I have differentiated the 2 boards below for children at different levels by using a maximum of 2 symbols per instruction on one and much more detailed text on the other.

SCERTS in task schedule

 

For parents and schools without a symbol program, resources like this can be made with photos and images found simply on the internet (searching a word on google images will bring up a large selection of related images!). You don’t even need to have access to a computer or the internet, just simply drawing a picture will be just as good. The instructions above could just be simple drawings of first a pizza, tomato sauce, cheese, the toppings and the oven down the side of a page!

Please post any questions below.

Days of the week board

A visual days of the week board can be great for children with autism to learn the days of the week, the differences that happen on each day and how many days left there are until the end of the week. Here is an example of a days of the week board I show the children at the beginning of every day and I ask the question “what day is it today?”.

days of the week

 

I then say a child’s name and they give me the day of the week that it is today. The day is then put at the top of our morning registration board. After each day is finished, I do not put that day back on the board so it shows the children a visual count down of how many days are left in the week such as on Thursday the only days showing on the board will be Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The subject symbols next to each day show the children an activity that is happening that day that does not happen on the other days such as dance on a Monday.

The days of the week board is also useful to prepare the children for a change in the routine. For example, last week we were not going to go swimming on Friday as we were going to a dance festival. At the beginning of the week I changed the symbol next to Friday to dance festival and also put a red cross over another swimming symbol to show no swimming on Friday. When I showed the morning board to the children on the Monday morning, it was clear that many of them understood that there was no swimming on Friday. Two children were able to say “no swimming”, 1 non verbal child spontaneously walked over to the board and pointed to ‘no swimming’ and 1 child screamed (his favourite activity is swimming!).

 

Visual register board for children with autism

This is the register board I use with my class of children with autism at the beginning and the end of every day. First thing in the morning, the class sit as a group in a semi circle and sing a ‘good morning’ song to each child (the same song every day to keep the routine familiar). After singing to each child, the child walks to the register board and moves their photo or name from the home section to the school section. Once we have sung to every child who is in school, I then choose a child to count “how many children?”. The child counts how many children (with or without support) and chooses the amount from a number board which I then show to each child and it is put below the school section as seen in the photo.

registration board

At the end of the day, we sing a ‘time to go home’ song and then each child takes it in turn to move their name or photo from the school section to the home section. This enables the children to know that it is now time to go home. This is a good familiar routine for the children which can be easily learnt and also a great visual for everyone to see who is in school that day.