Should you keep signing (ASL) with your speech delayed child? 5 Reasons this Momma says “yes.” (Verbal and ASL Word Count example for a 2 1/2 year old with Down Syndrome included)

Since I was working so hard to get Ethan so speak or sign when he was younger (before he was 10 months to a year), I didin’t think ahead much as to whether I was going to stop if he starting communicating verbally. Then he finally did start saying some words verbally, although he still predominately signs even now at 2 1/2. Im’ sure a lot of parents who do “baby sign” as some parents of typical kids call it since they mainly plan to use signing until their child talks. If a parent has a child with speech delays, however, they may have a hard time deciding if and when they should “drop” the ASL. We have been using ASL for quite awhile with my son (who has a pretty significant speech delay, but has made wonderful progress in the past year and actually speaks verbally quite well when considering his Down Syndrome and developmental delays from what I gather.) We started using ASL when he was 2 months old, signing and talking to him all the time while learning from the Signing Time and Baby Signing Time DVDs and finally saw some feedback from him around 10 months. What I have learned is that I don’t really see a reason to stop using ASL, especially because it seems to augment his verbalization skills rather than replace it. Here is why:

1)Communication reinforcement for the kids with speech delays: To learn language, kids need the reinforcement that we understand what is being said when language attempts are made.This can be done with ASL and verbalization of whatever language your family speaks. If my son is making sounds that I don’t understand, how can I reinforce that? I can’t, and therefore he may not try it again for awhile. If he can also use ASL while making a verbal attempt, however, I can make sense of the sounds he is making then praise him for both communication skills. He will likely (and has) start speaking while signing or sometimes just verbalize. It really doesn’t matter to me if he keeps signing while talking. I would not discourage it..why do that? Because it draws attention? I’m pretty proud he is bilingual (if I’m using “bilingual” too liberally for you fluent ASL folks, I’m sorry. But you get the idea.)

2) Confidence: Similar to reason #1, confidence goes a long way for the speech delayed child. (I’m a mom and a former mental health therapist, not an SLP/speech therapist, but I think I have enough experience with my kid and others to know how much this matters to success.) If I understand anything at all my child is trying to say–signing or speaking–then it encourages more interaction. As you will see in examples below, my son’s verbal vocabulary, while improved and good for having Down Syndrome..it is pretty small. A lot of what my son can share with me about his day is “said” to me in ASL. I know what he notices at the grocery store because as we power walk past the cracker aisle (because we already have some at home!) he signs “crackers!” I know he wants to read when a book is on the other side of the room, or the books are upstairs if he signs “read” or “book”. So yes, a kid can point to an object, but how much more confident it makes them in communication if he or she can talk to you in one way or another? Once mobile, a child with a speech delay could theoretically just get things for themselves and look at things without really pointing it out or interacting with others, but the back and forth exchange with your child is what you want to improve their vocabulary.

3)In addition to the benefit of increased vocabulary from the back and forth exchange between parent and child is an emotional connection. Sharing with one another what you notice, what you want, etc. is nice from the parent, but it is nice to see what is on your child’s mind as well. My son loves that I acknowledge that he knows a new puzzle piece has a dog on it by signing it (and barking lately, too.) When we go outside, he signs “bird” and I listen and say “oh, I hear the birds too. Cute birds, pretty singing (usually more detailed than that, not that it has to be. I say what I say! Sometimes I’m more intentional, but the point is to talk, but also acknowledge your kid’s communication.) I don’t even remember who told me initially about signing with my child with Down Syndrome, but I sure am thankful. I don’t know what life would be like without it, in my connection to my son. I’m certainly not saying you can’t have a connection with your child without ASL, but for us it has been a big help. We saw a preteen across the room at an event for kids with Down Syndrome using ASL even though he does talk and I thought, “I bet that will be Ethan a few years down the road..its hard to imagine him not signing at all.”

4) ASL can help you see how much your child with speech delay knows and remembers: Everyday I see how Ethan’s signing helps me know just how much HE knows about everything..what he notices, what he remembers, etc. There are a few gestures or sounds Ethan makes that would let me know he remembered something, but ASL bridges that gap SO much for us.I’m able to tell his therapists during evaluations what he understands about things based on what Ethan has signed. I know that he recognizes a variety of the same type of animal, for example. At first, you might wonder if your child only knows a word or sign because you pointed it out in a book. So this pig in Moo, Baa, LaLaLa is a pig. You know your kid knows that much. If your kid doesn’t do a sound or word yet but will do a sign, you might not know your child notices pigs on videos, in real life, in other books, etc. Taking one bit of information and applying it to other contexts is a very valuable development in learning, and it is something you want to reinforce and discuss more with your child once you know “that’s a pig, like in our book…” To notice that your child notices something is very helpful in their learning. It is just good to know, too. Eventually, I can see how Ethan would not be challenged enough if people assumed he only knew exactly what he verbalized-clearly! I can’t forget that what I recognize as the word “down”, others might not recognize. I want him to get credit for what he knows so that he can have even more built upon that knowledge, rather than drone on with the same old stuff. We are in the long haul for speech therapy, so I have to consider those things. To some extent, it is relevant for a mild speech delayed child who will probably be finished with speech therapy by age 5 or so, in my opinion.

5) It allows your child with a speech delay to have a little extra confidence in a skill set they have that most people do not..a second language (IT would be great to teach to your kids without speech delays, too. Can’t we all use a little extra skill and along with it, confidence?)

For my own records and for your perusal, here is what I have for Ethan’s spoken words and ASL signs, broken down into topics. This is probably not an exhaustive list as it is just too hard to remember everything. I’m guessing its pretty close to what he says on a daily basis, though. I did try my best. Also see this post if you have interest in using ASL with your child-teacher or parent. Besides my own positive experience in using ASL with a speech-delayed child, I have read scholarly articles that say ASL helps rather than hinders language acquisition and usage.

Give the list a look and then comment to let us know how ASL has helped you with your children!

SPOKEN WORDS:
ball
banana (doesn’t say “b” part usually)
“nanas” (his own word, meaning snacks usually)
Momma
Dadda
Nin Nin
Poppa/Papa
Meme-couple of times trying to say “Memaw”
up
down
bye bye (or just bye)
cheese (no ch sound yet)
potty (says it “pot pot” while signing potty)
“poo poo” (meaning what you think)
bath-spoken as “ba ba”
Kix (as in the corn puff cereal) Says all but the “i” part, surprisingly.
hi
hello– “-Lo”

ASL (American Sign Language) SIGNS USED, broken down by topic:

NATURE
wind
rain
snow
outside
tree
grass
stars
moon
cold
hot

ANIMALS (he does a sound for all of these as well. some sounds but not signs for certain animals.)
fish
shark
dog
cat
monkey
gorilla
bird
horse

FOOD/DRINK/MEALTIME
water
milk (not as much lately)
eat
drink
cheese
cracker
apple
table
more
cereal
finished/all done
“no thank you” (shakes head while signing thank you. only when prompted, working on thsi instead of pushing food away or throwing it!)

BATHROOM
wash hands
potty
clean
brush teeth

PEOPLE/interaction word signs
baby
Dad
Mom
Grandpa (does this for both grandma and grandpa right now)
uncle
(He has some signs he made up for some aunts and uncles and touches his cheek because of something my mom did a lot when talking to him. haha )
please
down
up
go
please
together
read
help
name
thank you
yes (nods head or ASL version)

EVERYDAY OBJECTS
hat
book
boat
car

BEDTIME
goodnight
sleepy
sleep
wake up/awake

FEELING WORDS
happy
mad/grumpy/angry
sleepy
surprised

COLOR SIGNS
red

NON-ASL GESTURES USED TO COMMUNICATE
“love you” gesture
“kiss” (blows kisses and will kiss when asked)
(BODY PARTS)
touches head
face
hands
nose
hair
knees
toes
ears
eyes
mouth
teeth
chest