Sign Language - Nonverbal Users

Who Else Uses Sign Language?

It is not just deaf and hard of hearing children who use sign language. Another large segment of sign language users is hearing nonverbal children who are nonverbal due to conditions such as down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, trauma, and brain disorders or speech disorders. For parents, sign language provides a means of quick communication, particularly for those whose attention spans may be very short or language very limited.

Or it may be a tool for language development prior to developing spoken language. For children, it is a means of expressing themselves so that they are less frustrated.


A common speech disorder is aphasia, a condition in which stroke or brain injury makes a person unable to speak. Sign language can be a communication aid for people with aphasia. Some resources:

  • "Sign language acquisition following left hemisphere damage and aphasia," an article from the of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, volume 12, issue number 1.
  • "Neural Basis of language and motor behavior: Perspectives from American Sign Language," an article from Aphasiology, vol. 6 number 3.
  • "Sign language and the brain: apes, apraxia, and aphasia," an article from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, volume 19, number4, Dec 1996.


Sign language is frequently used as a communication tool with children with autism. An article on sign language on the website encourages using signed exact english (SEE) with autistic children to promote speech development.

However, an About visitor wrote: "many autistic children are also mentally retarded or language impaired;thus learning fundmental ASL will give them some communication skills. learning SEE will prove to be too difficult for many of them or not conducive to meaningful communication"


Some hearing children with cerebral palsy may be unable to speak because the cerebral palsy means they can not control the parts of the body needed in producing speech.

Sign language gives them an alternative means of communication.


The experiences of parents and children with Down Syndrome in using sign language varies. Some parents of children with Down Syndrome find that using sign language reduces the incentive for children to speak as sign is easier for them. Others have found that using sign language encourages the development of speech in their children with Down Syndrome, and that the children drop the signs as they learn to speak. Some books and articles about using sign language with children who have Downs:

  • Early Use of Total CommunicationParents' Perspectives on Using Sign Language with Young Children with Down Syndrome (book)
  • Perspectives in Education and Deafness published an article on the use of sign language with a hearing impaired child with Down Syndrome, "Yes, She Can! Language and a Student with Down Syndrome," in the January-February 1999 issue.
  • Exceptional Parent published the article "Signing for Success" in the December 2002 issue. In this article, a parent of a child with Down syndrome describes her child's language progress through sign language.
  • Sign language is frequently discussed by participants in down syndrome discussion lists. Examples are bit.listserv.down-syn and the Yahoo group down_syndrome.


    From an About Deafness visitor:

    A few years ago I felt God telling me to learn ASL. I had first learned some ASL as a teen ager when I worked as a volunteer for the summer at the Ontario Camp for the Deaf - but this was 25 years later, and not having used it in all that time I had forgotten most of what I learned. I took two levels of ASL in night school and use it often now as a form of expressive worship in church. There are no deaf people in my church at the moment. I'm trusting God for future plans. I have been approached by a woman who has a daughter with Down syndrome. The child is 12 years old and although not deaf has never spoken a word. The mother asked me to teach her and the child some sign language so they can communicate. She has tried for years to get someone to help her with this - but with no success. I will be starting up with that soon. I know I'm not a skilled teacher of ASL - but I can certainly be of some help and am willing to try.

    Updated October 12, 2006

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