William’s signing journey
As parents of a child who has Down syndrome, we were advised to learn to sign and start signing with William when he was just a few months old. The message was the same from other parents that we met in support groups as well as the professionals involved in William’s early intervention program.
We attended Makaton training, checking out our local library for resources, as well as buying and borrowing resources. Adding resources to his Christmas, Easter and Birthday present lists for families and friends to buy.
At the beginning we started to incorporate signing as a family at home and when out and about. Just a few key signs to start with such as “milk”, “drink”, “mummy” and “William”. I printed Makaton Symbols and put them around the house, so the toilet door had symbols and words for ‘toilet’ and ‘nappy’ (it still does today!). Sometimes this acted as a prompt for me to remember to sign during the day, not just for his benefit to see the symbol and word, but mine as well.
Something Special with Mr Tumble was new to CBeebies. In one episode we saw Singing Hands for the first time. We bought Mr Tumble and Singing Hands DVDs and signed up to local Makaton training. We also had in our collection Makaton Nursery Rhymes by Dave Benson Phillips and added Shabang and other resources as we found them. We would watch DVDs together, and so learned signs largely through songs and nursery rhymes at home as this was a really good way to repeat the actions and remember them. We joined Singing & Signing sessions with other children who had Down syndrome.
William was slow to sign, when he started he would make signs up. Many kids do. I recall we went to a Pantomime arranged by Down syndrome North East when William was just starting to sign himself. At the theatre as we sat down in our row, he started to repeatedly sign Gorilla. We were confused. There was no Gorilla at this pantomime. It hadn’t even started. Then it dawned on us. We were watching Cinderella and William did not know the sign for Cinderella, so he used what he thought best. A sign he did know from what the word sounded like. He was hearing the word endings where ‘Gor-illa’ was like ‘Cinder-ella’. We clapped and cheered and celebrated William’s drive and initiative to communicate to us, as it was one sign that came from nowhere, probably the only sign he had made that day! It’s much easier these days to check what signs are for new words you encounter and check signs that you don’t know or are not sure of as you can easily look them up on your phone. We asked other parents what the correct sign for Cinderella was. We then repeated the right sign to use and repeated it over and over again. We then went a further step, stringing more signs together to support the transition and re-enforcement. ‘Yes’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Good’. William would sign back ‘Gorilla’ ‘Good’ accompanied by a big smile on his face. It turned out to be a little while before Cinderella was not a Gorilla in our house. His speech therapist was amused but told us that he needed to use a sign or say a word correctly more times than he did incorrectly to reinforce, associate and remember the right one.
Another time that springs to mind was when we visited a friend, and William kept signing ‘fountain’. He was obsessed with water and fountains. We were confused as could not see a fountain and explained we were indoors, there was no fountain, putting it down to his obsession. Then from the corner of my eye I realised I was in the wrong, as saw an ornament that was indeed a fountain, battery operated complete with flowing water sitting on the windowsill slightly hidden by the curtain. I quickly learned to watch and wait before correcting William’s signs. He was seeing the world differently to me, so sometimes when I didn’t understand his signs, or they didn’t make sense in context the best thing was to wait and observe him and our surroundings, by looking at what he was gazing at often at his eye-level and where his focus or attention lay. He was starting to sign to communicate and needed positive encouragement, so I needed to learn patience before jumping to conclusions.
Children are like sponges. It wasn’t just me and William learning Makaton but also William’s elder brother Joseph who would sign to his baby brother and me. He is a very good Makaton signer today as has kept up and regularly practices. When they are together, they talk a lot about what they have been doing and use Makaton throughout. It’s important everyone around William knows Makaton. William had a new PA (personal assistant). She attended Makaton training after supporting him for a few months. It was interesting talking afterwards as she had thought William was making quite a few hand gestures but having been on training realised he was talking to her using sign language. It’s made a big difference in them understanding each other.
Looking back now, incorporating signing into our life has empowered William to communicate with his hands. We believe it has reduced frustration and has also developed his communication skills. He doesn’t sign everything perfectly and he doesn’t always sign but when we struggle to understand each other we fall back to signing and we can communicate and understand each other. He has a very large bank of signs today and can remember and sign practically anything you ask when prompted by saying ‘What’s the sign for…?’ I’m often impressed with what he has remembered and the breadth of his knowledge.
We are not at the start of our journey anymore, if you are I would say that at first it can be hard work. You may have a new baby, and this is a life changing experience. All babies are different and if yours has medical conditions then that adds to the load. Supporting a child with sign language may at times seem like a steep learning curve. Remember everyone is learning something new as you and your baby learn together. Everyone is adding something new to their daily routine, if it gets too much step back and take it one step at a time. Taking up signing and using it in your day-to-day life does need commitment, especially when your child isn’t signing back but I’d say stick to it as it can take a long time before you see the rewards. I agree with what others said to me when I was at the beginning of our journey. Be persistent, practice and start off with small manageable steps. There was a long time when we signed to William, but he didn’t sign back. He watched and understood us but did not sign himself as did not have the fine or gross motor skills to do so. I’m really pleased we persisted, believe me there were times when I wondered if it was worth it and times that I did stop and pause, but then we picked it up again. Now, I know the positive benefits Makaton has had for him and how it continues to do so. Makaton still has a place in his life with our new perception as a teenager. It’s helping him transition into adult life, continue developing speech and communication, life skills and independence, enjoy singing and signing and this happens both at home and at school since he's in a Special School 6th Form.
Beverley Dean MBE, Founder of Special iApps C.I.C.