My Autism and Sign Language

I have been working with Autistic adults for more than a decade. Autism (which I myself have) is a neurological disorder that limits a person’s imagination, social skills and communication.

About a third of Autistics never learn to speak. For this reason, many are taught to sign using Makaton, a simplified lexicon of signs, gestures and pictures. Most of the signs are from BSL (British Sign Language), the main difference being that facial expressions are not used and it uses the same grammar and word order as English.

As I have also been fascinated with Sign for nearly as long, I threw myself into teaching our service users. I realised that there is a fundamental flaw in how signs are taught to the Autistic community.

Basically, we are too focused on manners rather than communicating.

A few Autistics become as proficient at signing as the Deaf, but they are the exception. Most of them pick up two or three signs and use them repeatedly. Many of them would simply sign please (by touching their lips) whenever they wanted something without adding anything else.

Part of being Autistic is mind blindness. This means we think that people can read our minds, it doesn’t occur to us that we have to tell people what we want. These people thought they had to touch their lips in exchange for what they wanted, not realising that no one knew what they were requesting.

It can take a year to teach an adult with learning difficulties one sign. The schools had wasted time teaching an impractical sign when they should have been taught nouns e.g. food and drink.

Makaton sign for toilet.
Makaton sign for toilet

One of our trainers had dismissed Makaton as too abstract for Autistics. I disagreed as the three most common signs in use were please, biscuit (two taps on the elbow) and toilet (the middle finger wiggled by the left shoulder); none of which visually resemble what the signs mean.

Some parents fear that signing discourages speech, this is not true. The important thing is to teach children to communicate basic needs. The first four signs that should be taught are toilet, home (two hands in the shape of a roof), hungry (rubbing the stomach) and pain (holding a shaking hand where it hurts).

Overcome by curiosity, I wanted to learn what it was like to be unable to speak, relying on Sign to communicate. While I am not severely Autistic, I did stop speaking for two days once, which was certainly frustrating. Then again, I did not know any signs then.

I was pleasantly surprised at how accommodating staff in cafés, pubs and stations were.

Signs like coffee (finger spelled C plus a drinking motion) and crisps (miming opening a crisp packet) were understood instantly.

I found that toilet was about the only sign people found confusing. I had to point to my zip before people understood. I later found out that the sign is deliberately vague to reduce embarrassment. This strikes me as a poor priority compared to communicating a basic need. Especially as it is one of the few signs that nearly all non verbal people pick up.

What is autism? Tap here to find out more via The National Autistic Society
Tap on image above to find out more about autism via The National Autistic Society

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.