Fact Sheet - Key word signing

Woman performing sign language

Key word signing - extended version

Sign language has been used with people on the autism spectrum since the 1970s to help their communication. Even though most people on the spectrum are not deaf, using sign language and speaking at the same time can help people on the spectrum to better understand language and improve communication.

Key Word Sign and Gesture used to be called Makaton. It uses some signs from Auslan (the sign language of the Deaf community in Australia). Signs and speech are used at the same time but only the key words in each sentence are signed. For example, a parent might sign the underlined words while saying “Go and get your bag and your hat”.

Why is it used?

Key Word Sign is one way of helping communication when speech is not working well. It can also help children to understand more of what is said to them. This is because using signs helps speakers to slow down and they can show more about what they mean.

What does the research say?

Research about signing for people with intellectual disability and communication difficulties has found mostly positive outcomes. Signing appears to help speech development, social interaction and learning new words in some people. Research about signing and people on the spectrum has looked at different topics including:

  • how well students learn signs compared with using pictures,

  • whether it is better to teach words using sign and speech or just speech,

  • if sign language helps children learn to speak, and

  • whether fine motor problems get in the way of learning to use signs.

Most studies only look at small numbers of children which makes it hard to know if the research findings are useful for other children. 

Some of the research about signing and autism has found:

  • Using signs can be a good way to communicate for some children on the spectrum.

  • Some children learn words quicker when they are signed and spoken, not just spoken.

  • Signing does not stop children from speaking.

  • Some children prefer using one type of communication over another type. Children should be helped to use which ever system they like best.

  • Some children prefer to use pictures that they can see, instead of signs. Some children might find it hard to make or remember the signs.

  • It seems that children who benefit most from signing tend to have more limited communication, and are better at using their hands and copying movements.


In Summary

Key Word Sign can be a way of helping the communication of some children on the spectrum. Other strategies, such as using pictures, should also be tried. Using signs along with speech will not slow or stop the development of speech


(revised November 2016)