Don’t be afraid of autism gestures

I recently had the pleasure of babysitting for David who is 16 months.  If you don’t have a toddler of your own, you MUST do this! Ten to eighteen months is the perfect age range. Trust me. Find someone with a child in this age range, offer to provide child care and send mom out to lunch.

This occasion was a perfect opportunity to “remember” what happens in typical communication development at the point where skills are just emerging. It’s so easy to forget about the subtle things that occur as communication and social interaction develop.

Gestures were critically important

On this particular day, it was all about gestures. David pointed to a ceiling fan he was particularly fond of. Pointing and showing and pushing away were just a few of the gestures he used to let me know what he wanted and especially what he didn’t want. The foundation of his social connection with me was in the form of gestures.

That made me remember

I have worked with parents and teachers that have been so focused on the development of speech that they have basically skipped over this stage of gestures in communication development.

I remember a parent who wanted an IEP objective that stated that we would ignore gestures and only respond to her son when he talked. Unfortunately, misguided thinking doesn’t understand that gestures are important tools to enhance communication. Even adults use gestures as a part of their communication system.

Here’s what research tells us about gestures*

  1. Gestures are a significant part of communication development, creating a bridge between pre-verbal communication and speech.
  2. Gestures enhance the child’s communication ability. They create communication before the child can speak.
  3. There is a positive correlation between parent gesture and child gesture. Parents who use more gestures tend to have children who use more gestures.
  4. When children use more gestures they tend to get more verbal feedback from their parents (which stimulates their verbal development).
  5. Early child gesture predicts later child vocabulary. Those who use more gestures at about 14 months demonstrate larger vocabularies at 54 months.
  6. Children spontaneously produce gestures along with their speech, just like adults do.
  7. Parents are often reluctant to encourage gesturing in their children with communication delays because they fear the child will not put forth the effort to verbalize.
  8. Encouraging the use of gestures will not hinder the development of verbalization. Rather, using gestures can facilitate and encourage speech development.
  9. There is quite a bit of research describing the relationship between gestures and language development of typically developing children. Less is known about development of the gesture-language system of children who experience language delay or communication disorders.
  10. The use of gestures to support communication continues even after children develop verbal language.  Gestures are an important part of the communication system even for adults.

Just to clarify

When we are referring to gestures, here are some examples. We are including things like this:

  • Nodding “yes” or shaking “no”
  • Pointing
  • Reaching, touching
  • Sharing attention with objects
  • Giving objects
  • Directing another person’s attention
  • Imitating life actions such as putting hand to mouth for eating
  • Waving goodbye
  • Reach up for “pick me up”
  • Blow kisses
  • Hand something for “help” or “open”
  • “All done”
  • “Where did it go”
  • “Patty Cake” and “Peek-a-Boo”

Do not fear

Encouraging gestures provides positive results for young children who are learning to communicate. Speech Therapists and educators can encourage all communication partners to make sure to model gestures for students and respond to their gesture attempts.

P.S.  I’m such a fanatic about the power of using visual strategies for communication, I think it’s important to remind us all that gestures are visual.  They work really well to get a young child’s attention.

P.P.S. One more thing.  The best is when gestures work both ways.  The child uses gestures.  And you, the communication partner, use gestures.  Play, imitation and communication.  Make them big. Be dramatic.  Have fun with them.



Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. The comments on gestures are highly appreciated. Some of our students do use a variety of gestures -including taking the hand of a 1:1 staff to lead him/her to their need.
    ASL (or a modified version of it) seems to have taken a backseat over technology as a means of communication. However, my hope is parents and families will try it with their children since everybody is at home.
    A daily or weekly challenge to families might be the way to go.
    This as we realize not every home has access to internet services.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I agree, technology seems to receive more support for this population than sign language. There are a lot of reasons for that. Many of the children in our target group don’t have the motor skills necessary to develop a very precise sign language system. I’ve seen many students who have been described has “having their own versions” of signs. Those individual variations of signs create a natural limitation to how many people can understand what the child is trying to communicate. These symbols might work for very few people in that child’s immediate communication environment but they won’t work beyond that limited group. The other problem is that no matter how skilled that student is with sign language, there are very few people who will be able to understand what the person is communicating. (By comparison, those in the deaf community tend to become part of larger groups who have a common communication system.) That said, signs can still become a piece of a person’s whole communication system. In contrast, technology has more universal potential. The gestures that were referred in the article are more universal in nature.

  2. The gesture resources link is giving an error. I would like to refer my clients to this page, but I want to make sure they’re able to see the science.

    On another topic, thank you for your wonderful work over the years! I saw you at a conference probably 20 years ago and you definitely changed the way my career has progressed and the way I do my work (I’m an SLP). I appreciate you!

    1. I had to remove the link. Sorry. The page disappeared. That happens on the internet.

      Thanks for sharing that you have been around as long as I have. So glad you are out there sharing the visual strategies message. There are always more people who need to hear it!

  3. In the hill country of Sri Lanka, quite a number of persons or for that matter practically all of them do not have computers, laptops, i-pads or smart phones
    due to poor economic problems as they are poorly paid comparatively with the city dwellers.
    Due to the prevalent corona pandemic, how can we help children (especially with autism) study online?

    Linda, for your comments and assistance please!

    Justice of the Peace (All Island)

    1. We must remember that everyone does not have access to technology. If tech tools are not available for families in your community, then you need to reach them a different way. The since the Covid19 situation prevents teachers from personally connecting with the children and the parents, you need to get creative. In that situation I would consider educating the parents to teach them more about how to help their children. Parents can help their own children if they know what to do. Then you have to determine how you can teach the parents. Telephone calls? Writing a letter with instructions? I call this “doing what you can with what you have to work with.”

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}