Let’s Talk About Signs

July 11, 2014 - Stephanie Dille

Let’s Talk About Signs

Hello Cornerstone family, friends, & staff! My name is Stephanie Dille and I have had the honor of being given the position of sign language coordinator here at Cornerstone. First, let me share some background about myself. I come from a predominantly deaf cultured home. I have a deaf father, brother, and uncle. My mother is hearing and is a pre-school teacher at the Indiana School for the Deaf. Starting from a very young age I was taught about the importance of access to communication. My family has chosen to use American Sign Language (ASL) as our main form of communication in our home. I was very lucky in that during my upbringing sign language was embraced and I was privy to watching my parents educate others on Deaf culture, community, and language topics. These experiences most definitely shaped my path for the career I am in today.

Stephanie conducting a sign language class with Cornerstone staff.

I am a firm believer that sign language has the ability to unlock doors to communication and language, especially for our non-vocal clients. In 2013 I became licensed through a company, My Smart Hands, which focuses on teaching hearing infants and children sign language to increase language development. The owner of this company, Laura Berg, has done some outstanding research on ‘baby signs’ and how teaching signs to infants beginning at 6 months can lead to significant gains in language development, reading levels, and overall IQ. Laura Berg is also a firm believer that sign language can be taught to non-vocal children with autism and other developmental disabilities as a primary means of communication.

I have chosen to sign with our non-vocal clients for several reasons. The first is that they deserve access to language now. Our children have so much to communicate to us on a daily basis, but when they are non-vocal that wedge of being unable to communicate creates a divide between them and the rest of the world. Sign language can be the first step to bridging that gap. The second is that there is research that validates, that in some individuals, sign language can help establish vocal approximations and words. For example, children with autism have a hard time grasping the exact meaning of some words. When you show a child the sign for ‘ball’ it actually looks like a ball in ASL. Pair the sign with the vocal word and you are helping the child to visualize at the same time what the word means, which in turn creates a stronger connection to language. In fact, I have used sign language programs with some of our vocal clients that were having issues emitting specific words accurately. By having the child say the word and sign it at the same time, the sign was able to help the child slow down verbally and allowed them to make that connection to the word helping with overall speech. Lastly, ASL is an extremely expressive language. There is nothing I cannot teach our clients in English that I would not be able to teach them in ASL. Many of our non-vocal clients have shown significant gains on the assessment portion of the VB-MAPP because through ASL they are able to mand, tact, complete intraverbals, and interact socially with peers and adults around them, while still working on vocals at the same time.

It is important for parents to know that Cornerstone’s goal is always going to be for our clients to be able to communicate verbally with the world around them. Sign language, to me, is the major stepping stone that can help our clients get to that point. Often times concerns are brought up to me that people outside of family, friends, and staff will not be able to understand what the child is saying if they use signs as a main form of communication. My response to that has been, and will always be, that other methods of communication are not as concrete as using ASL. Concerns that I have about the picture exchange communication system is that it limits expressive language, cards can be lost limiting the child’s communication, and overtime the card quantity builds making it harder for the child to carry all their cards around and find them when they need to communicate.

With augmentative devices I have concerns because if a child is completely reliant on a technological device then what happens if the battery would die or if the device would crash? The child, in that instance, would have no way to communicate with those around them. Although it is true that not everyone on the outside understand ASL people are still open and understanding enough to pick up on gestures done by the child. Sign language is reinforcing to a non-vocal child because instead of having to hunt for a symbol card or scroll through pages of letters on an augmentative device they can immediately respond with a sign or series of signs to make a sentence.

My role here at Cornerstone is extremely fulfilling because I get to work with our clients, staff, and families on a daily basis. Every Tuesday I offer a sign language class for our Greenwood staff in the mornings and afternoons. I am a huge advocate of having our staff able to communicate with every client here at Cornerstone regardless of whether they use vocals or signs. I currently have 17 therapists enrolled in my level 2 sign course. With our clients, I work with our leads to incorporate sign shaping programs. There are some signs that involve a lot of fine motor movement. I create shaping programs for the clients who struggle with fine motor movements so that they are still signing an accurate version of the sign and then can build up to independently signing the actual ASL sign on their own. Often times I see clients that have come in with signs that have been ‘made up’. Often times this delays language development because the therapists have a hard time understanding what the client is saying and then the sign has to be corrected if it is a sign that is used often. ASL is an actual foreign language with its own specific signs and grammatical structure.

I love talking with families about the benefits of using sign language with their non-vocal child and I especially love watching the clients develop language through signs and into vocals! There is seriously no better feeling than watching a client tact their family members for the first time through sign or hold a conversation with another peer that also signs. I am graduating on July 19th with my masters in special education with certificates in ABA and autism. I would love to start research after graduation on the benefits of signing with non-vocal clients on the autism spectrum and how it has the potential to lead to an establishment of vocals. If any of you have any questions or comments for me on the usage of sign language here at Cornerstone Autism Center please feel free to contact me at sdille@cornerstoneautismcenter.com. Happy signing!


Sign language is only for deaf people: False! Sign language is used by thousands of people who do not have a hearing loss. They can include infants, children with speech and language delays along with developmental disabilities, & adults who do not have the means to emit vocal speech.

Some children are lazy and depend on signing…it’s the easy way out of talking: ABSOLUTELY 100% FALSE! Using sign language actually helps to build up a child’s vocabulary. Studies have proven that using sign language with a hearing child will actually ACCELERATE verbal language!

Here is my favorite myth of all time…If my child signs they will not learn how to talk: THIS IS ABSOLUTELY 110% FALSE! One of my favorite facts about sign language is about how it is processed in the brain. The right side of the brain is where language is processed. The left side of the brain is where images are processed (such as signs). This means that sign language is processed on both sides of the brain! This is why we use baby signs with our infants and children because it activates various areas of the brain that would not otherwise be activated. How cool is that?

July 11, 2014, Stephanie Dille

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