Communicating in ASL means communicating within the Deaf community

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
I’m autistic and struggle with spoken language. I’m verbal, but my communication is often slow or I fail to express myself properly. I’ve often thought about learning sign language as a better way to communicate, but I’ve been told by several friends it would be appropriation of deaf culture as I am a hearing person. Is it okay for a autistic person to learn ASL, if only for themselves? And what’s the best way to be respectful of deaf culture while learning, if it’s appropriate at all?

Realsocialskills said:

It’s not appropriative to learn ASL, even if it’s just for your own use. It’s ok to want to find a way to communicate that works for you.

That said — it’s important to understand that ASL is a Deaf language. ASL isn’t similar to English, at all. It’s a minority language used by a minority culture that is very different from English-speaking culture.

If you came to communicate mostly in ASL, the overwhelming majority of people you’d be communicating with would be Deaf people and people who have Deaf parents. Your life and cultural reference points would become very different than they are now. You’d be assimilating into a minority culture that you’re not already part of — one that has every reason to be cautious about hearing newcomers. (Especially hearing newcomers who don’t have Deaf relatives.) That’s not impossible, but it is much easier said than done.

If you’re looking to learn a few signs that you can use with friends and family when your communication breaks down, that might be possible without changing your life too much. It’s important to understand that learning a few signs is not the same thing as learning ASL. (Just like there’s a difference between knowing a few Spanish words and knowing Spanish). 

(Also, don’t give yourself a sign name. It’s considered rude and appropriative, especially if you only know a few signs. You don’t give yourself one, Deaf people who have accepted you as integrated into the community give you one.)

If what you’re looking for is the ability to communicate more readily within the English-speaking culture you’re already part of, ASL is not likely to be very helpful. (For the same reason that no matter how much easier you find it to pronounce Spanish words, learning Spanish probably won’t help you to communicate with English speakers.)

If you’re looking to communicate more readily within English-speaking culture, English-based AAC is more likely to be helpful. If you’re comfortable with typing, a well-designed text-to-speech iPad app could make communication much, much easier. The best app I’m aware of is Proloquo4Text.  It has good text-to-speech voices, and it also makes it easy to communicate by showing people your screen. P4T also has good ways of storing phrases, and it’s highly customizable. If you find that typing doesn’t always work, you may find a symbol-based system helpful. (For instance Proloquo2go, LAMP, or Speak for Yourself.) (Good apps cost money, and they also solve a lot of communication problems that free and cheap apps don’t solve. And even the most expensive AAC app is cheaper than learning a second language).

Tl;dr ASL is a Deaf language. Communicating in ASL means communicating mostly within the Deaf community. Learning ASL probably won’t help someone with a communication disorder to communicate more readily within English-speaking culture. English-based AAC is likely to be a better solution. It’s important for people who want to learn ASL to respect it as a language and to respect the Deaf community as linguistic minority culture.