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Our 2-year-old grandson doesn't speak yet. Is using sign language a good idea?

Answered by Rachel Cortese, MS, CCC-SLP

Q Our 2-year-old grandson doesn't speak. He has been evaluated for autism, and was found to be perfectly normal on that account. He is very alert and responsive to verbal comments and instructions. His speech teacher gave him a few sign language techniques that work, although we question whether or not they are a good idea. When he's frustrated or wants to say something, he shrieks at full blast. Is it a developmental issue that will disappear with time?

You raise a great question about teaching sign language to children who are having trouble using speech to communicate. Many parents and teachers wonder if it’s a good idea, or if it will somehow get in the way of oral speech production. It’s important to remember that we communicate in many different ways. We use facial expressions, gestures, body language, writing and oral speech to name a few. Ultimately, when we need to get our needs met, we are going to use whatever seems most efficient at the time.

Oral speech is usually the easiest and fastest way to get a message across, so children will naturally gravitate toward that mode of communicating if and when they are able. In the meantime, supplementing with sign language or pictures can be an important stepping stone on the path to building intentional and functional communication. Think about teaching sign language as a supplement to other forms of communication, not as a replacement.

Your grandson needs a way to communicate with you and tell you what he wants, needs or feels. If oral language production is hard for him right now, supplementing with another form, like sign language, can help build the foundational language and communication skills that will serve him well as he continues to learn more ways to navigate his environment through language.