Have You Tried Sign Language — 5 Minutes for Special Needs

Have You Tried Sign Language

by Debbie


Sign language seems to be the current cure-all for those dealing with speech issues with their children.  You are bombarded with it either for your toddler who is just learning to talk or for your child whose speech is delayed.

In the beginning I had a positive attitude about sign language.  I introduced it to Peanut at a young age and even purchased 3 of the Signing Times DVD’s which she enjoyed watching.  However, by the time Peanut was nearing her third birthday, it became clear to her dad and I that sign language may actually be hampering her speech development instead of assisting it.  Peanut’s personality is such that she will pursue the road of least resistance and if she could “speak” without using her words, then, she would.  All attempts at verbalization began to dwindle.

When we discussed this with her preschool teacher, she agreed with us and we explored other options of communication, specifically, PECS and AAC devices.

Another problem I have with sign language is it really does not solve the problem of social communication.  If being able to talk to my daughter was my only goal then sign language would be a solution.  If she was frustrated and had behavior issues because she was not understood, then sign language might be the answer.  But these are not our problems.  Our family and those who deal with her on a daily basis can communicate with Peanut  just fine. 

I am trying to help my daughter communicate with society, and society, as a whole, does not know sign language.  When my best friend’s husband turned to me and had to ask what the sign she was making meant, he failed to communicate with her.  It was “more”, one of the first signs we teach our kids.  When the kid at McDonalds’ playland or the doctor’s office tries to talk to her and Peanut can’t respond to “What’s your name?”, they have failed to communicate.  In addition, I percieve, right or wrong, that young child gets this air of superiority over Peanut because she thinks she’s older and smarter simply because she can talk.  That child quickly moves on to others she can speak with and my daughter is left alone.  Sign lanuage will not help her in these situations. 

I am not saying we are completely closed to the possibility of sign language.  In fact, we have it in our long term IEP goals to revisit if we as a team determine it is indeed needed.  For now, however, we have tried sign language and we are not impressed.

*I have covered this issue on my blog in the past, you can read more on this subject at: When Sign Language Isn’t the Answer*

Email Author    |    Website About Debbie

Over the years I've worn many hats, but the hat of mother is one of my most special. I am not a perfect mother. I make many mistakes, but I have my share of triumphs also. When our youngest daughter came along, she came with a little something extra: Down syndrome. That's when the hat of advocator was added to my hat box. It a hat I try to honor every day and one I like to share with others to let them know they are not alone.

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1 KDL March 17, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Before my daughter started learning words a friend suggested teaching her some signs. I started with the word “done” because I wanted to know when she was done eating. After several days of modeling the sign and saying the word done to her she said, “Done!” but never did the sign. It was her first word. I decided she was going to start talking so I didn’t try anymore signs with her…this was way before we knew what was going on with her and since she had said the word instead of doing the sign I decided to just work on words. She did not learn anymore words for 6 months…much later we decided to use some sign language as a reinforcement for our house rules. She still didn’t really learn the signs, but wow she learned the rules fast. I think for her it gives her a different receptive language pathway, even though it doesn’t help her expressive language much. All that to say that it is definitely a complicated issue and not a one-size-fits-all solution. I still wish I had stuck with the ASL when she was younger as I wonder if she might have learned more words earlier, but there is no should’ve, would’ve, could’ve that can change the past, so we look forward.

2 Debbie March 17, 2011 at 7:31 pm

I don’t disagree that it can be good for some kids, but receptive language has never been a problem. Peanut is pretty much age appropriate in that area. In fact, she’s a pretty bright little girl and quite the problem solver, thus, her figuring out pretty quickly that if I sign, I don’t have to talk.

3 Janet March 17, 2011 at 10:56 pm

When my son first came home from China I used sign to help him communicate. He was 27-months and had no desire to communicate. This was pre-ASD dianosis. He was getting what he needed, so there was no need. Once in the intense language class they tried sign and PECS. Up through kindergarten sign was his best method of communication. New speech path tried PECS again w/ success. In first grade I called an IEP meeting to move on to an automated device. A fill-in speech path made the comment that he always would have his hands. Now in second grade he has over 150 icons in his book. At his recent IEP meeting the comment was made how very few people know sign (duh!) We will be having yet another meeting after spring break to decide what to do. I vote for the iPad.

Luke doesn’t like to communicate, but wants to talk. His sign is getting real sloppy, e.g. Using please for potty! All of his mouth mussels are getting stronger with therapy and he can now get some word approximations out (which is probably contributing to the sloppy sign)

Long story short — sign got him going, but isn’t a long term solution.

4 Debbie March 18, 2011 at 7:00 am

I totally agree! We are using the iPod touch with the Voice4U app. We like the proloquo2go app, but we don’t think Peanut is ready for it. Plus, the iPad is bigger and would be more cumbersome for Peanut to carry around (although she uses her daddy’s all the time) and we have the iPod touch set up to hang around her neck (with a break away lanyard for safety) The iPad/iPod is so much more versatile and cheaper than other AAC options.

5 Anastasia March 18, 2011 at 6:01 am

I wonder, what about cued speech? It seems daunting to learn but I have heard that some people have great success with it. Yes, cued speech has some of the downsides ASL does, such as if the child cues without voicing, which means people won’t understand the cued word…. but a lot of the time, a child will start off using small sounds & then end up using words. Or is this not something Peanut can do? Either way, I agree with what you are saying. I’m deaf & I often wish I had been provided with something other than sign. (I use Signing Exact English sign, which is why my grammar is excellent, but I have to text on my phone to those who do not know sign.) I commend you for seeking out other options for your daughter. :] Language is never one-size-fits-all.

6 Debbie March 19, 2011 at 11:05 am

Anastasia, I’m not familiar with cued speech, but from what you’ve described, I’m not sure it would work. At least not now. I’ll look into it further though. Thanks for the suggestion.

7 Chris March 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Just curious have you tried flash cards with just words on them? I never really pushed sign language. Just a few basic signs to help John communicate when he was younger. Found he verbalized more by seeing he written word. Bottom line–each kid is different–need to find what works best for yours. Often, it really just becomes an exercise in the process of elimination.

8 Debbie March 19, 2011 at 7:44 am

No, Chris, we have not tried that. But it would not work. First of all, Peanut doesn’t read yet, and second, it’s more complicated than that. Thank you for the suggestion, though.

9 Chris March 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Debbie, I forgot about the apraxia which of course complicates things as you are not just dealing with a speech delay. Just wish we all could give you a solution!

10 Debbie March 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Believe me, Chris, I wish you could, too! 🙂

11 Nancy Konigsberg March 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I’m not sure if you mentioned your daughter’s age or not. In treatment, we(myself and other therapists) use sign language early on in order to decrease frustration. While teaching sign language, we also say the words in the hope that spoken language will emerge. I am sure you know that chldren with Down syndrome are on a spectrum in terms of skills. Muscle tone, cognitive levels, and other factors influence expressive speech. Have you worked on strengthening the diaphragm and abdominal muscles and worked on oral motor tone? Low tone often impacts speech. Blowing activities using a feather or a balloon can be helpful. I agree that it is important to be understood. Social relationships are vital.

You might find some useful information on my site “Milestone Mom” (www.milestonemom.com).

12 Debbie March 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Nancy – my daughter is 6 and just finishing kindergarten. We have done most of the items you mentioned over the years and continue to work on strengthening and oral exercises. She is actually in pretty good shape in those areas and I do believe a lot of the problems she is having at this point is due to the apraxia and her easy going attitude and choice of path of least resistance. 🙂

13 Nancy Konigsberg March 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Hi Debbie – Have you tried ABA (applied behavioral analysis)? The therapist in me always wants to keep looking for solutions. Forgive me for my persistence.

14 Debbie March 29, 2011 at 7:27 am

I’ve not heard of that before. I’ll check into it. Thanks.

15 Nancy Musser March 22, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Hey, Debbie, it sounds like you’re doing all you can to meet Peanut’s needs and I sure hope you find the answer. I can comment a bit on Cued Speech because we used it very successfully with our now 25-year-old deaf son. We first heard about it when we were investigating options for the deaf and I learned that most deaf people don’t read above the 3rd or 4th grade level. Sign simply is not English. We wanted Charlie to learn to read and also to be able to communicate in the language of our home, our extended family, and our community. With C.S., Charlie has excellent English skills and reads lips well when the other person can’t cue.

Cued Speech has been successfully used with children with downs (see article in Newsroom at the Nat’l C.S. Assn website: http://www.cuedspeech.org/) and the entire system can be learned in about 15 hours. It’s similar to learning to type; once you know how, you can type/cue ANYTHING! (Choo-choo, meow, yikes!, c’est la vie, whatever!) It also helps with correcting articulation because you’re basically providing your child with visual phonics.

It might be worth a try.

Warm regards.

16 Debbie March 29, 2011 at 7:11 am

Thanks Nancy. I’ll check into it.

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