Using Sign Language with Children with Down Sydrome

6 years ago

American Sign Language for BALL.Using sign language with children with Down syndrome can enhance communication and make life a lot more fun for everyone. Many children with Down syndrome have some degree of speech delay. This makes it difficult for your child, as well as his caregivers, to understand and communicate with each other. 

When a child of any age, can’t communicate their wants or needs they may become frustrated. If you can’t guess what it is your child wants (e.g., a cookie, a drink or his ball that is stuck under the couch) you may both become frustrated. Most likely your child is communicating but not in a way that is effective or possibly not appropriate.

Sign Language

Sign language is a wonderful way for you and your child to communicate. Many children can pick up signs long before they speak their first words. Your early intervention program may also be able to help you and your family learn signs.

Other Methods of Communication

Of course, there are other means of communication such as vocalizations, gestures, smiles and other movements. Pictures may also be used to augment your child’s developing speech. A total communication approach to language development for children with Down syndrome will include and encourage signs, speech and pictures.
Your early intervention team will help you recognize how your child is communicating and work with you to move your child towards formal language use.

How to teach your child signs:

  • Start simple. Begin with simple signs like “EAT”, “MILK”, “MORE”, “BATH”, “WATER”, etc. Use signs for favourite things, things he senses/feels and frequent activities.
  • Use signs frequently. Show signs before, during and after activities, e.g., before getting MILK, while drinking MILK and when the MILK is finished. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
  • Always say the word when you sign it. This gives your child the information using both vision and hearing.

Above all, make it fun! Be enthusiastic and animated when your child attempts to make a sign. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Respond as if it was and model the correct sign. Praise him, be animated and enthusiastic, and narrate his world using signs and speech!
For more information on teaching your child to sign, visit:

Sara Bingham is the founder of WeeHands, author of The Baby Signing Book & co-producer of the WeeHands At Home children's sign language DVD. Come sign with us!

ASL Illustration Used With Permission From The Baby Signing Book by Sara Bingham (Robert Rose, 2007)

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