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Signs or Mimes:

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Which is better for autistic individuals?

Although sign language was first developed as a means of communication for the deaf, it has been also used to teach people with developmental disabilities communication skills. With autistic and other developmentally disabled children Makaton sign language is usually used.

Sign language is introduced either as an augmentative system to facilitate the development of speech for those who understand verbal language but have problems with expression (for instance, echolalia) or as an alternative system for communication for those whose receptive language is good but whose expressive language is absent (mutism). Signs are accompanied by normal grammatical speech, natural facial expressions and body language.

Miming is talking through gestures and movements without words. It can be helpful for those who learn about the world through a kinaethetic system (‘kinaethetic thinkers’) and find it easier to verbalise their thoughts if they express them in gestures and movements. A child understands the meaning of words through movements of his hands and his whole body. It can be beneficial for visual thinkers as well.

Sign language versus mime-signing (for kinaesthetic learners)

Disadvantages of sign language for autistic individuals

Sign language is not successful with all autistic individuals. Sign language may be difficult for those who do not understand verbal language and are poor visualizers whose inner images are based on kinaesthesia. Signs for these children should be modified to closer match these inner images (miming).

Besides, it is important to remember that autistic people tend to process any language literally, sign language included. That is why we need to modify the sign language (or, even better, to replace it with mimes) for the use with autistic individuals, to avoid misunderstanding of sign words and phrases. For example,

Signing the squeezing of cow teats to ask for milk seems pointless to Donna Williams, as for her, with only a literal level of processing, this would be more likely to be interpreted as: ‘Do you want to see a cow milked?’ After all, one does not see cow teats when milk is being poured into a cup (Williams 1996).

Another version of the milk sign is a lot like milking a cow, but without the vertical motion - you are just squeezing the udder. You take your dominant hand, make it into a fist, relax, and repeat.

Or take the sign for biscuit – clawed dominant hand taps the opposite elbow twice:

For a literal learner, to connect this tapping with a biscuit is impossible, the sign is too abstract – there is nothing ‘biscuity’ about it. [Of course, if you know the origin of this sign, it does make sense: hardtack or ship’s biscuit was a dry food that the sailors took for long sea voyages and military campaigns because it could be easily produced and stored. Baked two or four times, the biscuits remained edible for a period of time for many months. The biscuits were very hard, so the sailors had to break them on the elbow. But we cannot expect that many people connect this sign with the historical information]

Besides, even if the person mastered these two signs, how useful will they be outside the special facility? Just imagine, a non-verbal autistic man comes to the café and orders milk and a biscuit, using these signs.

How many people outside special facilities understand sign language?


Many autistic individuals, even without having been taught, use mime signs (they are not always conventional signs). Some autistic individuals (with kinaesthetic language) use mimes as a supportive means for translating verbal words (both receptive and expressive), as they often make better sense of what has been said through the movements. Thus, when they listen or speak, they might aid their understanding and expression by using physical or mental mimes in order to make better connections.

Another advantage of using mime is that it is much more easily understood by non-autistic people, so it can be used in a wider variety of environments than conventional sign language (Williams 1996).

Advantages and disadvantages of both sign language and miming are summarised in the table below.

Sign language versus mime-signing (for kinaesthetic learners)

Sign language



Signs can be taught through physical prompts and shaping that is beneficial for children with executive function problems (but not with tactile hypersensitivity!)

Sign language is very 'portable' and does not need any equipment, communication books or objects.

Autistic individuals (with kinaesthetic language) use mimes as a supportive means for translating verbal words (both receptive and expressive) that aids their understanding and making better connections between kinaesthetic and verbal utterances.

Miming is much more easily understood by non-autistic people, so it can be used in a wider variety of environment than conventional sign language.

Sign language is very 'portable' and does not need any equipment, communication books or objects.


Sign language is a linguistic system that has no direct translation into a 'kinaesthetic language'.

It is not suitable for those who process any language literally (sign language included)

It is not understood by many people, thus limiting the opportunity of interaction.

For autistic children with kinaesthetic inner language, verbal language can be taught through action songs and rhymes. When used as one simple single action per word, mimes can make linear sentences.

Kinaesthetic language helps the child to make connections between spoken words and body reactions; it is a sort of ‘body mapping’ (Williams 1996). If the child ‘speaks kinaesthetic’, label the mime with the word, so that the child can connect the experience of the movement with its verbal label. If you teach a child the word ‘jump’, make him jump; if you teach him the word ‘run’, make him run, etc. If you give the child the directions or instructions, help him to translate them into the body language; for instance, you say ‘go to the left’, then let him imitate the actions. Helping children to ‘map their body’ could make many tasks easier for them.

Talk to your child about what you are doing. Encourage her to imitate (to ‘translate into kinaesthetic’).

Some autistic adults use these strategies to understand what they are told better. Paradoxically, we often interpret these attempts at translation as bizarre autistic behaviours and prevent them from learning (of course, with the best intentions – ‘Stop fidgeting, stand still and listen what I am telling you’).

Only if we speak the same language, our communication will be successful.

This is taken from my new book series 'Becoming a Professional Parent - (2) Learning to Speak Autistic' (to be published next year).

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