You can use sign language with any child, but it can be especially useful for kids with special needs. Sign language is an excellent bridge from the time a child is nonverbal to when speech begins, but some children have a little longer gap between the two stages.
Often, a child with special needs will be taught about sign language in speech (or other) therapy, but there is no need to wait if you'd like to get started on your own. And the good news — signing with a child with special needs is no different than signing with any other child.
Maureen Wallace, mom of three, has signed with all of her children, starting with Charlie, who was diagnosed prenatally with Down syndrome. "My husband and I wanted (and still want!) to give him every possible opportunity to live his life to the fullest he desires, and we knew giving him a means of communication would be crucial," she explains.
She shares that their babysitter started signing with Charlie, using one sign at a time, so that's what their family started doing. To start signing, you generally begin with one sign (or a small handful) that help your child communicate his most desired actions or things. For example, a young baby is likely really motivated by milk, so that's a logical starting point. Other popular beginning signs are mother, father, bath or special toys, books or animals. The signs might be different for an older child, who has more daily experiences to draw from for inspiration.
But don't start stressing. Wallace says that if the prospect of signing with your child overwhelms you — which is a completely normal feeling — consider that you're learning right along with your child. "You truly learn one sign at a time," she says. "You don't have to go learn the alphabet and start signing everything. Baby steps, because your child is learning as you are."
Using sign language with a special-needs child can help with self-esteem, too. When you try to communicate, and the words just aren't there, it's frustrating. A child can feel like he's not being heard, and this can be crushing. Using sign language, then, can benefit more than just your child. "Our whole family and truly everyone who comes in contact with Charlie have benefited from our use of sign language," Wallace says.
She also echoes one of the most important things that signing parents need to remember — never give up. After working with Charlie for 18 months, she was feeling discouraged and wondered if he'd ever pick up any signs. There was a turning point, however, when a surgical procedure that required fasting was delayed until early afternoon. "Suddenly, we realized he was making the signs for just about every food-related item we had ever taught him," she remembers. "I mean, he looked like a third-base coach. We knew he was learning and that he would choose to use the signs on his own time."
Sign language is a valuable tool for all children. Don't be stressed if using signs is recommended for your child — it's easy, you work at your own pace and the rewards are immeasurable.
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