Autism and sign language: analysis of the signs used by autistic children

Seal, Brenda Chafin, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Schoeny, Zahrl, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Bralley, Ralph C., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
MacDougall, Mary Ann, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Bonvillian, John, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Since autism was described in 1943, different approaches have been attempted to improve the communication of low-functioning autistic children. sign language has enabled many to communicate thoughts they were unable to communicate with spoken language. Some autistic children, however, have shown little to no success in learning sign language. One explanation for their failure to learn signs is that they have motor apraxia, a disorder in which programmed movements of the limbs are impaired. Analyses of the signs used by autistic children and efforts to diagnose limb apraxia are the focus of this study.

Fourteen autistic subjects, ages 9:2 to 20:4, were videotaped using signs with their teachers. Their signs were transcribed into formational features {location, movement, and handshape). The subjects' sign features were compared to those of the teachers for distribution, accuracy, and handedness patterns. The autistic subjects' sign features were also compared to those of children acquiring sign language from their deaf parents. Tests to assess limb apraxia were also administered.

Results showed wide variability in size of sign vocabularies, distribution of features, and error rates. A significant positive relationship was found between the distributions of features of the subjects' signs and those of the teachers' and young children of deaf parents. When the features were analyzed for errors, several trends were observed. More frequently occurring features were signed with the lowest error rates. Handshape and movement errors were significantly more common than place errors. When results of the apraxia tests were correlated with results of the sign analyses, significant positive correlations were found between apraxia scores and size of sign vocabulary and number of different features demonstrated. A significant negative correlation was found between apraxia scores and movement errors. The percentage of right-handed signers was found to be significantly lower than expected.

General discussion of these results focused on neuromotor development of the upper limbs, on theories of cerebral dominance, and on the use of apraxia test results to predict success in signing. Specific discussion focused on the application of results in maximizing the communication programming of autistic subjects.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Communication Disorders Program, Department of Education
University of Virginia

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