Jessie has brought a whole new language into our life. Sign. I’ve always moved by hands when I speak, gesticulating with rather random abandon. Now my movements can have meaning.
Jessie doesn’t have a hearing impairment and we’ve managed to avoid tubes so far, but like many other children with Down syndrome, her receptive language skills far exceed her ability to communicate using words. Or words that others can understand. I don’t really know why, and at this point in time I am too busy to keep up with her rapidly growing signing vocabulary to find out.
Brenda, our speech therapist, suggested that we try using Signed English with Jessie to help her communicate and what a world it’s opened up! We started with “power” signs, like more and stop and play and no. Words that would give her the ability to ask for what she wanted, to see the effect of communicating. Sign “more” and more cheerios appear. Sign “play” and your Mom plays with you. Wow!
Jessie changed almost overnight from a very frustrated toddler into a blossoming grinning child reaching out to explore the world. We had no hesitation about using sign, about trying to give her the tools to express herself and to make sense of the world. And I certainly didn’t mind the attention it brought as she and I signed in the playground or the grocery store. I’ve met some parents who don’t want to use sign because it calls too much attention to their child, it makes them seem even more different. But I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t want to give your child the power to talk about the world around them, to ask for what they want, or to express the connections that they are making.
Besides, I don’t mind the attention. People come up to us and ask questions when they see us using sign, and it gives us a chance to explain some things about Down syndrome. Really important things—like the fact that Jessie understands a lot more than you might think if you just listened to her talk. People are impressed by sign and amazed that a little kid with Down syndrome can speak with her hands. I think it makes them do a double take, makes them question their first reaction when they see her. If she can sign, then what else can she do?
And she can sign! Now that she’s got the concept she’s frustrated by my inability to keep up with her. My sign book is worn and I realize my memory is not as good at it used to be. I practise Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs and the Billy Goats Gruff before I go to bed at night because I don’t want to be caught in the middle of a story having to look up a key word or phrase. Have you ever tried to read and sign a picture book? You need at least four hands!
We had to work on “want” for a little while. It was a big jump from labelling to making two word sentences that involved a verb. Instead of just snack or ball or book, we were trying to get her to say and sign “want ball” or “want book.” Then one day, when we were in The Papery, she saw a row of shiny sparking stickers that made her eyes light up. She leaned forward in her stroller and fiercely signed “ I want.” I was so excited! “You want those stickers,” I said, trying to contain my glee. I really wanted to shout to everyone in the store “She did it! She signed want!”
And then my heart fell. I didn’t have any money. She signed “I want” and I couldn’t respond to her first use of the sign. What good is want if it doesn’t work? I put my own pride in my pocket and asked the sales clerk if we could have two stickers, I’d pay for them later. When I explained why, she gave me the whole sheet. Jessie grabbed on to them and signed “I want” all the way home. Laughing and giggling at her own power.
The teachers at playgroup, Sandy and Darlene, have really gotten into learning and using sign in the classroom. The other children have picked up on their enthusiasm and I now get calls from parents who want to know what their child is saying with their hands. It’s piqued everyone’s interest and Jessie has become the resident expert on sign. If one of the teachers doesn’t know a particular sign, they ask Jessie. And for once Jessie has the chance to teach her peers something, to be the leader instead of the follower.
The photographer came to playgroup last week. All the children were dressed in their best clothes. Some didn’t want to smile, some squirmed. But when he told them to say cheese, they all, every last one of them, put their palms together and signed “cheese,” without even thinking about it. Now that’s a photograph!