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Communicating through sign

March 13, 2018 Ashley Biffert, Abu Jabbie, Michael Edward, Gerry Gabrielle, Myles Bingham and Ian Waugh—Aspen Program, Edmonton Public Schools
Yunis signs “thank you” to educational assistant Ian Waugh and teacher Ashley Biffert.
Focus on communication reduces violent outbursts for teenaged student with autism spectrum disorder

Yunis is a high school aged student who is on the autism spectrum and is non-verbal. When he first arrived at the Aspen Program, he presented with limited communication abilities and frequently engaged in volatile outbursts. For staff working with Yunis, it was a challenge to move past anecdotal stereotypes and work with him to improve and develop basic methods of communication. With a team commitment to establishing a safe and welcoming environment, as well as teaching and reinforcing basic American Sign Language (ASL) techniques, Yunis was able to communicate basic needs and participate in the school community in a socially appropriate manner.

Getting past the stereotype

When Yunis started at the Aspen Program, the classroom team that consisted of one teacher and two educational assistants (EAs) refused to accept preconceived notions that a non-verbal teenage student could not understand or be taught new communication methods. The entire school team was committed to reinforcing positive interactions and creating a base of signs that would enhance Yunis’ ability to participate comfortably and thrive in a school setting.

Yunis was able to communicate via three consistent signs: “eat,” “home” and “bathroom.” Through collaboration with family and the inclusive learning team, the classroom team created a list of signs aimed at enhancing Yunis’ ability to communicate and fulfill his expected student role at school. This initial list consisted of: recognition of letters and numbers and their respective signs, as well as the signs for “break” (I need a break now) and “thank you.”

How did we do it?

To teach a new sign and have it entrenched in Yunis’ vocabulary, staff would model and verbalize the sign multiple times in an authentic situation. First, Yunis needed to present as calm, focused and attentive. Ms. Biffert or Mr. Jabbie would ensure Yunis’ attention was on the designated task by asking him to point and ask “show your eyes, show your nose, show your mouth, are you listening?” Once Yunis was able to respond to these cues, staff would introduce, model and state the sign until he successfully replicated the sign progression. This often took between five and 10 attempts.

Yunis had “first/then” charts with

a two-step plan for him to “first” complete schoolwork or a task, “then”

receive a positive reinforcement such as computer time or play. On this chart were generic pictures of the signs that were new as well as the signs he had mastered.

When Yunis became fatigued, there was a possibility that he might become aggressive or anxious and act out physically while punching or biting himself or others. Once he mastered the “break” (I need a break) sign, his anxiety and outbursts were reduced as staff consistently granted him a break and appropriate activity to reset or relax. Being able to sign for a “break” appeared to increase Yunis’ autonomy and independence, ultimately allowing him to spend more time in the classroom with his peers.

Timeline for success

Yunis arrived at the Aspen Program in September 2016, and staff started to work with his family to learn about his needs, strengths and areas of improvement. The teaching and practicing of signing started in October and was ongoing throughout the entire school year. This included many failed attempts, resets and perseverance before success was achieved.

This school year, Yunis is creating signs that he attributes meaning to, and he then demonstrates the meaning of those signs to staff. This may indicate that he has an increased sense of personal autonomy now that he is more comfortable in expressing his daily needs and preferences.

Through a commitment from this classroom team to teach, reinforce and accept Yunis’ own signs, he is now able to engage in socially appropriate school activities each day. He can work on a 24-piece floor puzzle, eat in an appropriate time frame and manner, clean his area, dress for the weather and communicate with all members of the school community. Yunis now practices signs to represent numbers and letters on a daily basis and he uses an iPad app to work on technology to access preferred songs. His advances in communication continue today. The daily use of sign language for this student with autism has improved his ability to communicate and participate at school. ❚

Aspen Program

Operated by Edmonton Public Schools, the Aspen Program works with students to support positive behaviours and develop skills for success in school, career pathways and in the community.

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