Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 125-137

First online:

Sign language and autism

  • John D. BonvillianAffiliated withUniversity of Virginia
  • , Keith E. NelsonAffiliated withThe Pennsylvania State University
  • , Jane Milnes RhyneAffiliated withUniversity of Virginia

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Research findings and issues in teaching sign language to nonspeaking autistic children are reviewed. Data on over 100 children indicate that nearly all autistic children learn receptive and expressive signs, and many learn to combine signs. These children also exhibit marked improvement in adaptive behaviors. Speech skills are acquired by fewer children and may be developed through simultaneous speech and sign training. Possible explanations for these results are given, together with suggestions for future research and data collection. Recommended innovations include exposure to fluent signers and training in discourse and code-switching. Different sign language teaching methods need to be investigated more fully, including emphasis on training sign language within the children's total environment and with greater staff and parental participation.