Other common names: manual signing, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), Key Word Sign
At a glance: Sign language
Type of therapy
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.

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

It takes time for children and their parents and carers to learn sign language.

Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week


What is sign language?

Sign language is a way of using hand signs to communicate. People with speech or hearing problems can use sign language to support their speech skills or as their main way of communicating.

Who is sign language for?

This intervention is suitable for anyone who has speech or hearing problems, including people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is sign language used for?

Sign language is an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system for communicating. It’s claimed that AAC systems help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their communication skills, including how they understand others and express themselves.

Where does sign language come from?

Sign language was originally developed to help people who are deaf or have hearing impairments. It was introduced as a therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the 1970s.

What is the idea behind sign language?

The idea is that some people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find sign language easier to learn and use than speech.

What does sign language involve?

Sign language involves learning to use your hands to communicate. Key Word Sign (formerly known as Makaton Australia) is the main system used. It was developed for people who have difficulty producing speech.

Key Word Sign uses hand signs to represent main or key words in a sentence. You use the hand signs at the same time as you speak. When you use sign language in combination with speech like this it’s called ‘total communication’. This is the approach typically used with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Key Word Sign is not a full sign language like Auslan, the language used by Australians with hearing impairments. Auslan has a different word order from English.

Cost considerations

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

Does sign language work?

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

Who practises sign language?

Generally, you get training from a professional like a speech pathologist and then teach and practise sign language with your child. Some special schools teach and use sign language.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If you want your child to use sign language, you need training in sign language too.

Where can you find a practitioner?

Some speech pathologists can train parents to teach their child sign language. Go to Speech Pathology Australia – Find a speech pathologist. You could also contact Key Word Sign Australia to find out about sign language training courses. Schools that use sign language might also be able to train parents.

It’s a good idea to speak about learning and using sign language with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about sign language 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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