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Becca Eisenberg
BY Becca Eisenberg

5 Reasons to Encourage Gesture Use in Children with Special Needs

Gestures are defined as movements created by your body to express an idea or meaning. For children with special needs, nonverbal communication can be crucial for effectively communicating with others, due to limited spoken language.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, has conducted many studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7 percent of any message is conveyed through words, 38 percent through vocal elements (volume, rate, etc.), and 55 percent through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.). If we communicate with gestures up to 55 percent of the time, this is a type of nonverbal expression that should be encouraged with all individuals, specifically those with special needs.

I read an interesting article by Susan Goldin-Meadow, “Gesture as a Window onto Communicative Abilities: Implications for Diagnosis and Intervention,” which discusses the importance of gestures and how they can be crucial as a diagnostic and intervention tool. Goldin-Meadow points out that “the more children gesture early on, the more words they are likely to have in their spoken language.” After reading this article, I wanted to share five reasons why gesture use should be encouraged in children with special needs:

1. Gesture use can be used as a diagnostic tool.

Many individuals with varying disabilities have limited gesture at a young age. Noticing this can help both caregivers and therapists recognize delays and disorders in speech and language. According to Goldin-Meadow, “Gestures can be used to identify individuals who are not producing gesture in a timely fashion, and can thus serve as a diagnostic tool for pinpointing subsequent difficulties with spoken language.”

2. Gesture use can serve as an early predictor of speech development.

If a child can gesture a specific item or action but can’t verbalize it yet, we can predict that this word will be part of that child’s spoken vocabulary. For example, if a child can’t say the word “dog” but gestures dog, this can be predictor that “dog” will be in the child’s spoken vocabulary once he or she can verbalize it. Thus, teaching gestures can help increase future vocabulary.

3. Gestures can improve communication.

As adults, we use gestures all the time to communicate specific ideas. Whether it’s asking for a check from the waitress or waving good-bye to your child, gestures are an important form of communication that we all use.

For many children with special needs, gestures are limited and may need to be specifically modeled and taught. An increase in gestures as part of a child’s total communication approach can lead to significantly fewer communication breakdowns. This in turn decreases frustration and negative behavior.

4. Gesture use can improve narrative development.

According to Goldin-Meadow, “Gesture has been found to predict changes in narrative structure later in development.” With an increase in gestures and spoken language, narrative development would be naturally more complex and rich with vocabulary. A 2014 study by Özlem Ece Demir, Susan C. Levine, and Goldin-Meadow found that children were able to express a character’s viewpoint much earlier in age with gesture use than verbally.

5. Gestures can improve and increase sentence construction.

When children can combine gestures and words, they are learning early sentence construction. Goldin-Meadow notes that “children often combine gesture with words and they produce these gesture-speech combinations well before they produce word + word combinations.”

Why is this important? For a parent, this knowledge can help you model specific gestures with speech. If a child has a specific word in his or her spoken vocabulary, encourage a gesture-speech combination. For example, if your child loves cookies, gesture eat and then say “cookies.” Encourage your child to make these gesture-speech combinations to improve overall communication and encourage early syntax.


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Becca Eisenberg

Written on November 30, 2016 by:

Becca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist, author, instructor, and parent of two young children, who began her blog www.gravitybread.com to create a resource for parents to help make mealtime an enriched learning experience. She discusses the benefits of reading to young children during mealtime, shares recipes with language tips and carryover activities, reviews children’s books for typical children and those with special needs as well as educational apps. She has worked for many years with both children and adults with developmental disabilities in a variety of settings including schools, day habilitation programs, home care and clinics. She can be reached at [email protected]
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