Other common names: manual signing, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)
At a glance: Key Word Sign
Type of therapy
Communication
The claim
Improves communication skills
Suitable for
People with communication difficulties, including people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Research rating

Find out more about this rating system in our FAQs.

Some research shows positive effects, more research needed.
Time

Estimate of the total time for family in hours per week and duration

10-20
It takes time for children and their parents and carers to learn Key Word Sign.
Cost

Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week

$30-120

What is Key Word Sign?

Key Word Sign is an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system. It’s a way of communicating that uses hand signs to represent the main or key words in a sentence at the same time as the words are spoken.

Who is Key Word Sign for?

This intervention is suitable for anyone who has communication and language difficulties, including people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is Key Word Sign used for?

Key Word Sign is used to support the communication and language development of children and adults with communication delays or disabilities.

It’s claimed that AAC systems like Key Word Sign help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other communication difficulties improve their communication skills, including how they understand others and express themselves.

Where does Key Word Sign come from?

In Australia, Key Word Sign was previously known as Makaton. Makaton was developed in England in the early 1970s by speech therapist Margaret Walker with the help of Kathy Johnston and Tony Cornforth. It was introduced to Australia in 1977 by Anne Cooney, an Australian speech pathologist. The principles of Key Word Sign are used around the world under different names, including Makaton, Sign Supported Speech, Signalong and Lamh.

What is the idea behind Key Word Sign?

Key Word Sign was developed for people who have difficulty understanding and/or producing speech. The idea is that using hand signs can help people with communication delays learn communication and language skills. This includes children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What does Key Word Sign involve?

Key Word Sign uses hand signs to represent the main or key words in a sentence. You use the hand signs at the same time as you speak. Key Word Sign is often used along with other AAC systems like photos or pictures. This is called ‘total communication’. This is the approach typically used with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Key Word Sign uses signs from Auslan, which is the language used by Australians with hearing impairments. But Key Word Sign is not a full sign language like Auslan. Auslan has a different word order from spoken English and isn’t recommended for children with communication delays.

Cost considerations

You might need to pay for Key Word Sign training. Other significant people in the child’s life, like siblings and grandparents, might also need training.

Does Key Word Sign work?

Some research has shown positive effects from this therapy, but more high-quality studies are needed. Key Word Sign might work best for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) if it’s used along with other therapies that have been shown to work.

Who practises Key Word Sign?

Generally, you get training in Key Word Sign from a professional like a speech pathologist. Then you teach it to your child and practise it together. Some special schools teach and use Key Word Sign.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If you want your child to use Key Word Sign, you need to be trained to use it too.

Where can you find a practitioner?

Some speech pathologists can train parents to teach their child Key Word Sign. Go to Speech Pathology Australia – Find a speech pathologist. You could also go to Key Word Sign Australia to find out about training courses.

Schools that use Key Word Sign might also be able to train parents.

It’s a good idea to speak about learning and using Key Word Sign with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about Key Word Sign with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.

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Last updated or reviewed
15-12-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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