What is Key Word Sign?
Key Word Sign is a type of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). 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.
Other common names for Key Word Sign include manual signing.
Who is Key Word Sign for?
This intervention is suitable for anyone who has communication and language difficulties, including autistic people.
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.
AAC systems like Key Word Sign can help autistic children with 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 autistic children.
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’ or ‘multi-modal communication’. This is the approach typically used with autistic people.
Key Word Sign uses signs from Auslan, which is the language used by deaf Australians. 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 hearing children with communication delays.
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.
You might be able to include the cost of getting Key Word Sign training in children’s NDIS plans. You can contact the NDIS to find out.
Does Key Word Sign work?
Some research shows that Key Word Sign has positive effects for autistic children. For example, research shows that signing helps children make more vocal sounds and words than other forms of AAC. Also, signing doesn’t seem to stop children from speaking when they can.
Research also suggests that Key Word Sign works best when it’s used as part of a program that includes other evidence-based therapies.
More high-quality studies are needed.
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. You can also learn signs from workshops or from Australian websites or other resources.
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. It will take time for you and your child to learn Key Word Sign.
Where can you find a practitioner?
Some speech pathologists can train parents to teach their children 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 early intervention (ECEI) coordinator or NDIS local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.