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An Unfortunate Language Development Misconception

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In some professional groups, there is a language development misconception that using sign language or other visuals will inhibit the ability to learn to talk. Trusted professionals who give out inaccurate advise, although well-meaning, do a disservice to children.

My experience with a professional’s language development misconception:

My first two children met and often exceeded all of their developmental milestones during their first few years of life. My third child was different. He cried many hours each day over the course of months. He was diagnosed with reflux and given a prescriptoin. As time passed, I noticed that he was not meeting developmental milestones in the area of language. I was very concerned and started interventions. I used a picture exchange communication system (PECS) and sign language to help him communicate his needs and wants. When I took him to our pediatrician for his well-child visit, we discussed my concerns. When I mentioned I was using sign language with him, our pediatrician told me that she and her pediatrician colleagues had noticed a trend that children who use sign language do not learn to talk; therefore, she did not recommend sign language.

After hearing this statement, my mind was flooded with memories. In my career as a special education teacher, I had come across parents who were very opposed to having their children use sign language with the belief that it would inhibit their child’s ability to learn to communicate verbally. Most parents would accept our explanations about the research (which shows absolutely no evidence that using sign language prevents verbal communication), but a few never would. I had always wondered where parents were getting their language development misconception. I did not understand how so many of them could be misinformed. In the moment where I was told not to use sign language by our pediatrician, I realized that it was probably the local pediatricians spreading this false information.

After bombarding the pediatrician with questions on if her recommendation was actually supported by research, she admitted that it was not and backed down. She told me I could go ahead and use sign language with my child.

 My son did make progress and can now communicate verbally without any picture supports.

What to do if your child is not talking?

The first step is to give your child a communication system. Everyone needs a way to express their wants and needs. Sign language, pictures, or other augmentative options should be considered. It is okay to continue to work on verbal language, but in the mean time, provide another way to communicate. Sign language, PECS, and other communication methods, have been shown in research as effective ways to increase communication (Bondy & Frost, 1993; Goldstein, 2002).



Bondy, A. S., & Frost, L. A. (1993). Mands across the water: A report on the application of the picture exchange communication system in Peru. The Behavior Analyst, 16, 123-128.

Goldstein, H. (2002). Communication intervention for children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 373-396.

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