For children with autism who are non or pre-verbal, there are two common alternative systems: The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and sign language. By far, PECS is more popular. It is easier for adults to understand, and also, as a selection-based communication method, is easier to teach children how to use.
Alanna is currently in "Phase VI" of PECS - the final stage - where she is learning to label and comment. For example, she might choose two pictures, one "That is" and one "ball" and put it together on a sentence strip to say "That is a ball".
We are very grateful for PECS because it is the system Alanna uses functionally. She has some words, and is learning some sign, but most of her communication is via PECS.
Having said this - there are problems with PECS. Although PECS brings language out in some children, it does not seem to be doing so with Alanna. Her imitation skills are finally getting to the point where she is able to imitate signs closely enough to make them useful. So we are teaching sign as well. One of the nice things about sign (other than the fact that we think it is bringing out more speech for her) is that it is more natural in conversation. She can face me and sign and I can sign back and pair it with words. Pausing to wait for her to find a series of pictures in a book and give it to me make the conversation much slower.
So, here's my take on the whole PECS versus sign debate... most kids need PECS to start because their imitation sucks (a hallmark deficit of autism), and because most people do not understand sign language. However, signing with family is great if it can be taught because it makes conversation more natural. It's also good in a pinch if you lose a picture or forget the whole communication book (I have turned around many times in the car because I forgot Alanna's communication book or we lost a key picture). I'll be interested to see if it brings out more language for Alanna. So far, so good. We've been teaching her book and ball, and lo and behold, I've heard both words out of her lately!
As for being able to talk - we want this so much for Alanna, but we think she suffers from apraxia of speech, which makes it so hard for her to talk. Hopefully, with some speech therapy, she can get more consistent with making sounds. More on this in another post!