“Help! My Son WILL NOT Sign!” A Familiar Question from a Mom

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A frustrated mother emailed me this request for help a few weeks ago. I’ve written about introducing sign language to late talkers in my books Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual and Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers and devoted many podcasts to this topic, but I’m not sure I’ve packaged the answer to this question quite like this before, so I wanted to share it here, with a few additions I’ve added today for clarity. I’m hoping that these ideas will help anyone else who’s looking for options for solving this pretty common dilemma with late talking toddlers who don’t catch on to signing as quickly as we’d like!

“Hi Laura. Your video and books have been a great help for our son. I have a question about sign language. We have been working with my son on signing for about 4 months and progress has been slow. He understands some signs but will not do them by himself. When I say a word and show him the sign he holds his hands out for me to do the sign with his hands. He will not do a sign without my help. He will even push my hands together for more and then hold his hands out but will not push his own hands together. Hoping you might have a suggestion for this. My son is 2 1/2 and is Autistic. He does not use any words yet. Thanks.”

My reply to her:

Thanks so much for your question! There are a couple of possibilities for what’s going on here and without seeing him, I wouldn’t know exactly what’s happening, but I’ll tell you what my experience has taught me.

Possibility #1: It could be that he is having difficulty with motor planning (the ability to send a message from his brain to his hands) and he knows he can’t sign, so he doesn’t. BUT thankfully, he knows you can sign, so he prompts you to do it! If this is the case, signing progress will be SLOW. When I think this is what’s going on, I switch to PECS (The Picture Exchange Communication System.) Have you tried that method with your therapists? Ask them about it so they can teach you EXACTLY how to begin this system. PECS is not just teaching a child to use pictures; it’s a very distinct way to introduce the pictures using highly motivating objects so that he learns to trade the picture for the object. If you’re going at it alone with him and he’s not in speech therapy (WHICH I NEVER RECOMMEND UNLESS THERE’S NO OTHER OPTION), look at the suggestions in my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual to get started AND buy the PECS manual too. The PECS Manual will teach you exactly how to proceed, but again, I’d start by talking to your SLP. Make sure she uses PECS too in the way it’s supposed to be presented.

Possibility #2: It could be that he can perform the signs himself, but he has learned through all of his past experience with you that you do the signs. In a sense, he thinks that only you’re supposed to do it. He hasn’t learned the whole imitation piece. If this is the case, back up and teach him how to imitate you, first by using with objects/toys before you move on to teaching him signs. Use the ideas from Level 1 in my book Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers. Young children first learn to copy you with familiar objects before they begin to imitate body movements and signs are a type of body movement. The book will walk you through that entire process with lots of step-by-step instructions.

Possibility #3: It also could be that he can sign on his own, but he’s become overly dependent on you to do it and it’s the path of least resistance to prompt you to sign for him by holding up his hands as if to say, “Go ahead and move them for me!” If that’s the case, you’ll have to pick something that is ULTRA motivating for him, something he cannot resist, and use that to cue the sign. Continue with the sign for “more” since it’s easy and you’re already using that one. Many SLPs don’t teach the sign for “more” first since some kids, especially those with autism, tend to overgeneralize that sign, but that’s certainly not the case here! I bet you’d love for him to use this sign alone, even if he overused it for a while. For more on that discussion, read my post In Defense of “More”… 10 Reasons I Still Teach the Sign for “More” First.

I have a question for you… does he clap? If he can clap, he CAN sign more!! If not, he can’t, for whatever reason… again that’s too hard for me to help you sort that out without seeing him. If he can’t clap yet, then signs are too difficult for him at this point and I’d highly recommend beginning with PECS. AND you also should look at teaching him to use other early gestures first. Does he wave bye bye? Will he give you a High 5? Does he lift his hands to be picked up? Have you seen him point – either to a picture in a book or to direct your attention to something? Can he dance to music with you? Those are all things I try first before beginning signs, or if I’ve jumped the gun and realize a child can’t sign, I work on these things as my “back up” plan and move forward with signs when he’s mastered using some early gestures. Many, many toddlers with ASD do not use gestures until they are directly taught.

One other idea – has he seen anyone else sign besides you? If not, then get someone else to sign so he has a “model” for what he should do. A sibling or dad usually work well for this solution. Pick something he LOVES and have the other person model the sign and then very excitedly receive whatever it is that he would want too.

If he’s a video/TV/iPad kind of kid, you may even video this kind of exchange and let him watch it several times over several days and then try the VERY SAME activity with him to see if he’ll implement the sign then. This option is a great solution for kids who love apps on your phone or iPad. ! I haven’t used it often, but when I have, it’s been magic!

I’ve seen this issue a lot over the years – and I always use one of the ideas above to break that cycle.

Let me know how it works out for him and YOU : ) I love this question and I’m going to use it for an upcoming podcast. Do you listen to those shows? I’ll try to remember to email you and let you know when it’s recorded. Thanks and good luck to you!!


**Photo credit: pixshark.com**


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