Childhood Apraxia and the Benefits of Sign Language

Childhood apraxia of speech is a motor disorder which causes children to have difficulty voluntarily making the movements needed for speech. Children with apraxia of speech do have the capability to say speech sounds, but they have a problem with motor planning.

Childhood apraxia of speech is a motor disorder which causes children to have difficulty voluntarily making the movements needed for speech. Children with apraxia of speech do have the capability to say speech sounds, but they have a problem with motor planning.

Imagine knowing exactly what you want to say, but when you open your mouth, only a garbled fraction of the word comes out - or even worse, something that doesn't resemble what you're trying to say at all! You can't seem to put more than two or three words together and form a sentence. Your parents and friends don't understand what you're saying, and you have no idea why. This can become incredibly frustrating for children, and sometimes even discourages them from wanting to talk.

It's been shown that through extensive therapy with a speech-language pathologist, some children with apraxia can in fact resolve some of their problems with talking, though the disorder itself is thought to probably last forever. One thing the therapy tends to focus on is helping the child control how fast s/he talks (slowing it down gives your child more time to process his or her words). Another is the ability to control how his voice rises and falls as he talks (rhythm and melody can often help him learn to speak). Also, controlling the rhythm of his words can help (making sentences easier to put together).

There are many methods used by speech-language pathologists, often times involving visual cues. Some have children use communication boards or pictures, as well as some basic finger signs to prompt or guide the child along. This is where sign language comes into the picture, and can be extremely beneficial. It's not very hard to see why. Even though the general school of thought is that sign language is only for deaf people, that is simply not true. By giving children with apraxia of speech (who can hear perfectly fine) the opportunity to use sign, we open up a whole new way to communicate. This can in turn also help them more effectively develop their ability to talk.

Children with apraxia need multi-sensory input. The visual cues of sign can build a bridge for children to progress to normal-sounding speech. When both using a sign and voicing a word, it helps the child remember the motor process for that word.

For example, let's think about the word "food." A therapist might use the sign for "food" while also saying the word aloud, and the child does the same. With this doubling-up of cues, the child remembers the process easier. He's seeing the sign, hearing the word, and then physically making the sign himself while saying the word aloud. This process is far more likely to stick than simply imitating the word he is being given. Seeing the sign can give him a visual "clue" to what word or idea he is trying to express. It also slows down the rate of speech, giving him more time to process what he's trying to say.

Sign language is beneficial to children with apraxia on several different levels.

  • Emotionally: It is far less frustrating to be able to, at the very least, sign what it is he needs. This makes it much easier to communicate on the most basic of levels. Instead of straining and stringing incorrect words together to form a broken sentence, a child could make the sign to show that he is thirsty. Of course, coupling this with voicing what words he can say will help him remember - and positive re-enforcement from family repeating a correct sentence back to him helps as well. It shows the child that he is being understood, and can make him more positive about communication in general.
  • Socially: Having the option of sign language in addition to vocal speech will help children form better relationships with their peers, as well as adults. Imagine how difficult it would be for a child who has such trouble talking to make friends. He would have a hard time communicating, and would probably often times be excluded from group activity. Also, he might be afraid to try to talk to other kids. If a child feels like other kids don't understand him, it can cause him to shy away from people and not want to even try to make friends. Children with apraxia have also been known to act out when they are frustrated, and that can lead to even more social problems. Sign language gives these kids another option.
  • Academically: If a child is trying to learn, but is distracted so much by the pressure of trying to produce speech, he's not going to be focused on the material in front of him. By having the option to sign as well, he will be more attentive and involved with what he is learning. Children with apraxia are often at risk of falling behind in expressive language - the ability to properly use the rules of language to put sentences together. Sign can help kids keep expanding their expressive language by giving them another way to communicate an entire idea, instead of improperly constructing sentences and not knowing how to correct them. This would make it easier for them to talk with their teacher, ask appropriate questions, and make the entire learning process easier.

Children with apraxia can use sign to assist their verbal speech - it should be thought of as a 'bridge' or an 'anchor' to communication. Once they find that they are being more easily understood, they tend to be more willing to learn and try to use more words. Using sign language for children with apraxia is not meant to replace their talking. It is meant to help them more effectively be able to speak.