|Photo © MrTinDC | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Bronze sculpture of hands demonstrating American Sign Language,
in the visitor center at Gallaudet University.]
To preface: I am a hearing semiverbal autistic person who is studying American Sign Language (ASL) and using it as AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication). I want to talk about why ASL can be useful for some hearing autistic people. (Of course, it’s widely useful by d/Deaf/HoH people, despite oralists’ discouragement of sign languages—destroy this philosophy for all!)
However, before you consider my words please look into perspectives from actual d/Deaf people, whose experiences and culture should always be centered when discussing sign languages. Here are some links to start, and there’s a more thorough list at the bottom of this article.
I formally studied ASL as a teenager before I knew I was autistic, or knew that AAC was an actual thing. I enjoyed ASL much more than German I’d attempted for a year in high school. While coming home from evening community college ASL lessons, I found it difficult to switch back to listening and speaking; the car radio made even less sense to me than usual and it was hard to have a spoken English conversation about how class went. I only took four semesters of ASL back then, which isn’t very far at all towards fluency. I then proceeded to not practice for… sixteen years, except haphazard conversations here and there in customer service jobs where I encountered d/Deaf customers.
Then in 2017 I had a chance to review what ASL I knew: I participated in Autism Campus Inclusion, a self-advocacy program for autistic college students run by The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). It isn’t a sign language focused program, but it was held on the campus of Gallaudet, a private university for educating d/Deaf and HoH students. A fellow participant arranged ASL lessons for us, and I was excited and energized to be signing again.
I flirted with the idea of going back to classes, but was too attached to my Latin studies to make it happen right away. Finally, in spring 2018, I was in a class about autism with a hearing professor who happens to be fluent in ASL, and the ease of using sign language as AAC excited me once again. It’s so much quicker than typing for me! I contacted a Deaf professor about restarting my ASL studies, and after viewing a video of my expressive signing skills, he recommended I start back up with ASL 201. Unfortunately, I had to drop out after re-finishing 201 last fall; formal school just isn’t working for me right now. But the opportunity to get back into ASL was great—I found that my receptive (understanding signing) skills were the main thing that faded over time, whereas I managed to retain a lot of expressive skills over all those years of not practicing. ASL simply always felt like a natural way to communicate. Now I am approaching becoming more fluent via unschooling, with set goals for daily study and weekly vocab gain.
So why is ASL so useful for me? I’ll go into a few reasons here, with additional autistic perspectives from hearing ASL students Elizabeth and Zoë.
It’s certainly not true of all autistics, but my fine motor skills are significantly better than my oral motor skills—hand movements feel much less minute and subtle, compared to the mouth movements necessary to produce speech properly. There are so many times I have something to say and it’s easier to imagine producing it in signs than it is in speech. (To be clear, I still suck at ASL grammar and syntax, so I’m sure I’m not doing that aspect well yet, but the sheer movement is easier. One of my huge self-study goals is to improve on these aspects because it’s much more respectful to use proper ASL grammar than to stick to English word order.) Even through an interpreter it’s so much faster than typing, and of course it’s more versatile than pre-printed AAC cards or even a robust symbols-based AAC app.
Another benefit of learning ASL for me is that facial expressions are taught explicitly, unlike hearing neurotypical culture where we’re just expected to magically pick them up. Since I was not identified as autistic when I was young, no one else in my life was telling me to go home and practice facial expressions in the mirror—but my ASL professor did! I am certain that the amount of intentional control I now have over my facial muscles is due to ASL study. And I feel I can express emotion much more clearly in ASL than when using speech or my communication device, because facial expressions and body language are inherently tied to ASL’s very vocabulary and grammar, rather than being a supplementary, mysterious messaging system. Zoë says , “because ASL is an actual language, I can learn to use and read ASL facial expressions and body movements, which helps me build skills to use and read everyday ‘body language.’”
I, like many other autistic people, struggle with auditory processing: the function whereby our brains take in sound and try to make sense of it. As Elizabeth says , “auditory processing is fatiguing.” This can interfere with spoken conversations even for autistics with otherwise typical hearing, especially in environments where there is a lot of background noise. In busy coffeeshops, for example, I often don’t understand parts of what my friends are saying, and most song lyrics are lost on me until I’ve heard them 10+ times through. Sign language, however, provides visual input rather than auditory input, which for many of us may be an easier modality to process receptive language. Personally, I’m still trying to catch up on my receptive ASL skills, but it seems to help my understanding of spoken language even more than CART captioning (a live captioning service) if I am able to watch an ASL interpreter paired simultaneously with the spoken English. I have started requesting ASL interpreters for events and doctor’s appointments, and even though I’m not fluent in ASL yet, it’s really helpful as both an auditory processing aid as well as AAC.
Another feature of conversations in sign languages is that many of them might take place in spaces specifically dedicated to sign such as d/Deaf events and language classes, meaning that there may not be the level of conversational background noise that bothers those of us who are oversensitive to noise. Of course, d/Deaf spaces can be loud too, but we hearing autistic people can wear ear protection in those settings without missing any information.
Additionally, d/Deaf culture is typically more direct and straightforward about subjects that hearing allistic culture might consider off limits, which can mesh well with many autistic people’s natural inclinations. Interactions in sign languages can end up being less exhausting than spoken conversations if you’ve had the chance to learn other Deaf social norms deliberately rather than having to guess at hearing-world neurotypical norms. And as Elizabeth points out , learning ASL features “practice with back-and-forth communication to check understanding—this is something that’s been consistently hard for me in English, but with ASL I get to see a lot of examples of teachers and other more skilled signers checking in with less skilled people.”
There are some cons to balance all these pros I mention when it comes to sign languages for autistics, mostly consisting of caveats and conflicting access needs. I am lucky to have good fine motor skills, but many autistics struggle to match handshape and complex fine motor movements. Modulating and noticing/understanding facial expressions, even when taught explicitly, might still be incredibly difficult. A major part of proper ASL and Deaf etiquette is consistent eye contact—this can somewhat be faked by an autistic signer by staring at your communication partner’s nose or forehead, but it’s most respectful to maintain true eye contact to a greater extent than is comfortable for many autistic people. Our stims may distract other signers with extraneous movement, and we may process visual information too slowly to keep up with fluent signers.
Zoë points out  that at times “Deaf environments can sometimes be very loud… music may have a strong bass so you can feel it, which is great for Deaf people but not for me… conflicting sensory needs are something that exist.” All these conflicting access needs should be addressed as openly as possible, in situations where they affect conversation partners, and certainly some hearing autistic people may struggle with them so much that ASL is not a good option for them. And even for those of us who find sign languages useful for our own access needs, the lack of people who understand sign language in day to day life can limit our opportunities to use it as AAC and/or as support for auditory processing problems, just as it limits d/Deaf folks’ access to communication across settings. Even in d/Deaf spaces, autistic students may find that Deaf people can be very critical towards them or might think ASL should not be used as a communication method for anyone else.
It’s also incredibly important that we as hearing autistics are careful not to appropriate d/Deaf culture or fail to center d/Deaf experiences despite using a shared access tool. On that note, I’ll repeat that I hope you will click some of the links above and below in order to learn about ASL and Deaf culture from actual d/Deaf perspectives, rather than leaving off on the subject at just my writing. As hearing autistic signers we only have expertise on our experience as autistics, not on important linguistic features or cultural values in the d/Deaf community. Folks who want to learn ASL should seek out instruction from Deaf instructors, who can teach cultural nuances and a more thorough understanding of the language. And you can go to d/Deaf events, but “check the description to see whether they’re open to hearing people, and what level of skill is required” (Elizabeth) . If you support an autistic person, consider asking them if they think learning sign language would be helpful for them, and if so help them seek out d/Deaf-led resources.
I am so grateful to the d/Deaf community for nurturing a language—in the face of horrific oralism and audism—that is helpful to me as an autistic person. ASL is invaluable to me as AAC and support for auditory processing issues, along with all the more detailed benefits above. The opportunities for cultural exchange I’ve had where both hearing autistics and allistic d/Deaf people have realized that we have a lot in common are precious to me, and I hope to find chances to learn from DeafAutistic people, because they have insight that neither individual group can access on our own. I think our communities have a lot to gain from working together to fight the ways speech, oralism, audism, and ableism are forced onto all of us, and learning to have those conversations in ASL is a privilege to me.
I hope you have learned from my experience how ASL can be useful for autistics, and that if you’re hearing you’ll continue to learn more alongside me about how we can be most respectful towards the d/Deaf community.
Here are the rest of the links I promised:
: Quotes from Elizabeth and Zoë (who requested they not be identified further) were pulled with permission from personal communication.