The Power of Gestures

Janine Shapiro, CCC-SLP, BCBA

My most used tool in my practitioner’s toolbox is one that at first glance often seems foreign to both speech-language pathologists AND Board Certified Behavior Analysts.  Many of my therapy sessions feature a variety of hand gestures that either supplement or replace my verbal speech prompts with learners.  The gestures aren’t American Sign Language or cued speech (a formal visual system of communication used with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing).  Instead, the gestural cues at Access assume many forms and are tailored to learners’ individual needs. Hand gestures paired with speech sounds are phenomenally effective in facilitating the establishment of words in some nonverbal children and in increasing intelligibility in many vocal learners.  

The late Dr. Anthony DeFeo, a clinical supervisor at The University of Arizona, introduced me to gestural cueing in graduate school.  In essence, gestural cueing is the association of a sound with a unique hand gesture.  People often ask me to demonstrate to them the hand gestures I use for various sounds, and I do so with pleasure, however, I always communicate that there is no magic in the form of the gesture.  Any gesture can effectively cue any sound.  Pairing the two stimuli together in a scientific manner is the crucial step for success with this technique.

At Access, gestural cues are just one method involving the association of speech sounds with another stimulus form.  Using a non-verbal prompt or cue for speech represents the intersection of behavior analysis and speech pathology at its finest.  Below is a video discussing and demonstrating gestural cues. Check it out!

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