by Amber, Contributing Writer
When we started speech therapy, one of the first things they did was teach Cason sign language. I immediately had a “Duh!” moment. Of course he should do sign language! Why hadn’t I been doing that all along?
When my daughter was little, I taught her a few signs. When I taught Pre-K, I taught my students sign language. Why hadn’t I been teaching sign language to Cason?
Children with apraxia understand what is being communicated, but aren’t always able to effectively communicate back, which causes frustrations. We had a lot of frustrations going on with communication, on his part and on mine. He would become frustrated because I didn’t understand his needs and wants. I would become frustrated because I didn’t understand him. The result was a lot of crying, and sometimes the crying came from both of us.
Before introducing sign language, we would play a “game” of 20 questions. I call it a game, but it was anything but that. It was just me going down a list of things I thought he may be trying to say. “Do you want milk? Do you want to eat? Do you want your cars? Do you want the monkey? Do you want_____?” He would start crying when he wanted/needed something, and I couldn’t guess what it was.
He couldn’t point to what he wanted (that was a delayed skill). He would start crying and that would be my cue that he needed something. Now, if he was an infant, then crying would be a normal cue for communicating a need. But Cason was over 18 months old and really needed to be able to communicate in a more effective way. Sign language was our lifesaver during that time. But we did run into some problems.
When we started sign language, we started with the sign for “more.” After a week or so, he was able to make that sign. The next word I wanted him to learn was “milk.” I felt it was important for him to learn that word in sign language because it would help with his frustration level when trying to communicate with me when he was thirsty.
We started trying to learn the sign for milk, but that sign took a while to learn. The sign is to open and close your hand, kind of as though you are milking a cow. Cason had problems getting his fingers to work, and it turned out to be another motor planning issue.
He would hold his hand out, look at it, and his fingers would start to kind of twitch. I knew his brain was telling them to open and close. I knew he was wanting them to open and close. However, the brain and hand just couldn’t seem to get on the same page. Finally, after quite a while, he figured it out.
We continued to teach him more signs and sometimes ran into the same motor planning problems. For the most part, he was able to pick up the signs fairly quickly. We also bought the Signing Time DVDs. Those were awesome!
I had a few people express concerns when we started sign language. They were afraid if Cason learned to sign, he would choose to do that rather than learn to talk. However, that is rarely the case when a child is learning sign language. Cason wanted to talk, and the desire to do so was strong. Sign language just gave him an alternative way to communicate while his brain was still figuring out speaking.
We actually found that when he started learning signs, he also started trying to vocalize the words. For example, when he signed milk, he would say “mmmm.” When he signed eat, he would say “eeeee.” Those were such big steps, and it gave us something to build on. He gradually progressed to saying “mih” for milk while he signed.
As the words started coming over the next year, the signs started fading for Cason. We starting using signs with his brother, Callen (three years old and currently in speech therapy), and now we do sign language with our youngest, Caden, who will start speech therapy next week (at 19 months old).
Sign language has been a huge part of our life during the past five years. I always encourage mothers of infants to start sign language early. It is so helpful, and it’s something the whole family can get involved in and learn.
Bio: Amber lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children. She has two sons diagnosed with apraxia of speech and sensory processing disorder. Her older son also has hypotonia. She is a stay at home, homeschooling mom who taught public school for eight years. In her free time, she likes to read and sew.