Why Sign Language?

If you’ve seen us around town or if you’ve read an entry or two, you know we are very motivated to have the spoken word be Noah’s primary method of communication.  So why the emphasis on alternative forms of communication?

You all probably know parents who are delighted that their 1-year-old baby knows sign language and can sign things like “more,” “milk”, “please” and “cookie.”  I have heard stories of children starting at 6 months or so with those basic signs.  Can I make a confession?  I did not even attempt to teach my earlier children sign language as babies, and even our Baby Seth did not start picking up signs until he was about 18 months.  But, I’ve heard it can be done.  Still, even Seth was able to sign basic signs long before he had any intelligible vocalizations.

With the sharp rise in autism and the recognition of the troubles children (and adults) with autism face in communication skills, I believe along with picture communication systems, sign language is also a resource parents should tap into when considering how to best equip their children for life.  Even though autism is usually not diagnosed until 3 years of age, the vast majority of children, diagnosable or not, are able to learn sign language.  And there is no evidence that learning sign language is detrimental to any child’s speech and language development.   In fact, there is evidence to the contrary, that sign language leads to earlier acquisition of speech.  So, you have nothing to lose by teaching sign, and you have everything to gain.  Even if you only teach your child three or four basic signs in those early years, those three or four signs may make the difference between your child being completely noncommunicative and having a connection where he can make his needs and his wants known.  If you think about it,  words like “more, milk, eat” and “please” are the staples of a young child’s life anyway.  Once you cross the language barrier with your child, whether it be in the form of PECs, sign language, or the spoken word, you only have to build on the foundation for communication already laid; while if your child reaches the age of 4 or 5 without that connection, it may be much harder to establish it at all.

Noah, with Down syndrome and childhood apraxia of speech, had a very limited sign language vocabulary (and no speech) of “milk”, “more,” “please” and “eat” from the time he was 3 until the time he was 4.  I have found it very interesting that the first batch of words he learned to speak at age 5 included those first words that he signed.   There have been studies which also have recognized the connection between words initially signed and then later spoken, although I have to assume that the first words signed are those heard and used most often.  The corollary may be more of repetition and usage than of signing and then speech.  In any case, there is no doubt that for most children, special needs or no special needs, their ability to use sign language comes before their ability to speak.  In typically developing children, that time-lapse may be negligible; but with children like Noah who have a much longer transition between the two abilities, learning sign language is crucial to their ability to communicate and participate in the world around them.

If you want the scientific evidence on the benefits of sign language, I will point you to a site much better prepared to discuss it than I am.  http://www.down-syndrome.org/reviews/119/ gives an excellent explanation of the different facets involved.  What I am prepared to do is tell you our experience with sign language and how it has given our son a voice.

Noah was introduced to sign language at age 2 by the ECI speech therapist who came to our house for once-a-month sessions.  She taught him a few basic signs and provided me with a few sign language flash cards that I taped to the walls in the areas where we would use them the most.  He stuck to those first four above-mentioned signs for about a year.  They really addressed his basic needs, and there was not really a necessity for him to use more words than that.  Around age 4 he experienced a language explosion (all in the form of sign language), and it seemed he added more signs to his vocabulary every few days.  I learned quickly to identify the areas he wanted to communicate in and find, print off and post those signs around the house.  As his needs and wants became more varied, so did his sign vocabulary.  I distinctly remember realizing that in sign language, Noah had found his voice.  As he is starting to vocalize now and form words, the sign language not only gives him a visual and kinesthetic prompt for the spoken word, but it also allows him to attach meaning to the vocalization.  This combination of spoken word and sign is known in the world of special needs as Total Communication.   A word signed is also ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS spoken by the language partner, whether the signer is able to verbalize or not.  In our realm, sign language is not an alternative to the spoken word, it is simply a facilitator, whether the achievement of the goal of the spoken word is immediate or down the road a bit.  Sign language does not mean you are giving up on speech, it means you are using a new tool to equip your child for speech.

Now, learning sign language is challenging in the sense it requires time and effort.  Honestly, if I thought Noah was only going to use sign language until he began speaking, I probably would not be teaching him as much sign as I am.  In the past year I have had three experiences that have made me realize that the benefits of sign language will be lifelong.

First, I spoke with an educator and producer of  homeschool curriculum.  This man has been in the field of education for many years, and he has a grown son with Down syndrome.  Since I am just at the beginning of homeschooling a child with Down syndrome, and he is much further down the road, I asked him what he would do differently if he had it to do all over again.  His answer was that he would have started sign language MUCH earlier.  His son had only recently begun sign language classes, and he was doing very well in them.  If he would have started sooner, he would have had a voice outside of his family, and that would have made a big difference in his life.  His son, unlike most people with Down syndrome, never developed speech as a main mode of communication.  The voice that he found in his 20s is the same voice that Noah found at age 4.

Second, I attended the National Down Syndrome Congress National Convention this past summer.  Many of the speakers during the general session were self-advocates with Down syndrome.  So these were the best of the best in terms of their language ability.  Although their accomplishments were HUGE, and I admire them for all they have learned and the abilities they have, some of their speech was very difficult to understand.  I can see that even with years of therapy and education, language is an ongoing struggle for them.  How helpful for them if they are equipped to augment their speech with sign language.   (Sign language is very logical.  Many of the signs combined with a minimal speech effort convey the thought that they represent.  For example, the sign for the word “eat” is fingers gathered and brought to the mouth.  If you were trying to figure out what “eeeeeee” meant, and the talker signed eat as they said “eeeeeeee,” you would probably be able to figure out they were saying “eat.”  This means that even people who have not learned sign language can still recognize some of the signs if they see them.)

Third, in researching sign language this past year, I made two discoveries.  First, there are lots of deaf people out in the world who we ignore because we don’t “speak” their language.  Since learning sign language with my family, we are all more cognizant of people in the community who use sign language, and we are excited to be able to communicate with them.  By the time Noah is a teenager, I fully expect him to be able to communicate well in speech and in sign.  That means he will be specially equipped to reach out to people who the rest of the speaking community ignores.  He will be equipped for service.  That leads me to the second discovery I made.  You know that two-year foreign language credit all colleges want to see fulfilled on college applications?  The majority of colleges and universities in the United States accept American Sign Language for that requirement.  For a look at the nearly 200 schools listed that accept ASL, go to  http://web.mac.com/swilcox/UNM/univlist.html.   These are also the reasons I choose the American Sign Language forms of signs versus adapted signs or Baby Signs.  If we are going to go through the work of learning sign language, we might as well learn it in a way that is usable beyond our family.

Speech and language development appear to be the biggest hurdle children with Down syndrome face.  It is well documented that people with autism as well as Down syndrome have relative strengths in the area of visual learning.  When you add the kinesthetic element of sign language to the concreteness of picture cards, you get a holistic and rich foundation on which to build a communication system that allows a child to both express himself and understand the world around him.

Tonight I received very exciting news.  Dr. Bill Vicars of www.lifeprint.com has agreed to allow www.wordsofhisheart.wordpress.com use his graphics to produce sign language flash cards for its readers.  This means I will be posting sets of flashcards for you to post around your house with the signs you will find most helpful in introducing sign language to your family.  I look forward to working on those and seeing how many people will be blessed by Dr. Vicars’ generosity.  If you have some ideas for my first sets, please post a comment and I will start getting those posted in the next few weeks.

Thanks so much, Dr. Vicars.  You are a blessing.

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