Saying our family is unique is an understatement!
My name is Jessica and I am a Hard of Hearing Professor of American Sign Language. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education from the College of Charleston and a Master’s degree in Deaf Education from Gallaudet University. My husband, Paul is an American Sign Language interpreter who holds degrees in ASL Interpreting and Psychology. We met at the famed Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. and quickly fell in love! We have two beautiful children together, Jay is eight years old and Joy is two. When Jay was born, his first language was ASL. He primarily used American Sign Language to communicate until he began preschool at age three. When Jay was five, his little sister Joy was born. Unforeseen to us, Joy was born with Down Syndrome and a hearing loss. We have chosen to use American Sign Language both with our typical child and our child with special needs.
The goal of this blog is to encourage you to use American Sign Language with your child, it is a wonderful way to communicate early and supports language development. We will try to help breakdown stereotypes about American Sign Language and give you confidence to give it a try. We will also be posting topic specific tutorials in American Sign Language to help you move past the basics and develop a richer language experience for yourself and your child.
So you’ve been signing with your child and you know the basics, now what?
Once your child has repeatedly demonstrated that he/she can sign a word, it is time to add more language! Let’s say for example your child is signing eat. Now when you respond to your child you want to add at least one sign. Try this…. You (point at your child) eating (sign eat) crackers (sign crackers) you (point at your child). That is a complete sentence with ASL grammar! Or you can respond… you (point to your child) want to (sign want) eat (sign eat) you (point)? This is a yes/no questions you need to raise your eyebrows as you ask the question. You are introducing new vocabulary around the sign that your child is already comfortable with thus creating a vocabulary expansion. Continuing on in the theme of food, when you are at the table show your child the sign for each present food. Expose them each time they want a bite of that food by repeating the sign again. Sometimes you will have to fingerspell a word to your child. Don’t shy away from attempting this. You are creating visual print in the environment. Incorporate concepts like hot and cold with your meal as well. If your child attempts to copy a sign but doesn’t produce it correctly celebrate their attempt, but model back the correct sign. Just like in English, if a child says “pasketti” it maybe cute but we repeat back “spaghetti.” Remember you will have to show your child a sign multiple times before they will begin to produce it, be persistent and patient. When they do produce it celebrate!
Families with children with special needs–
The same rules go for children with special needs; we want to continue to build on that vocabulary. Exposure, exposure, exposure! In my previous examples, I talked about using food related signs. I know that sometimes children with special needs may not consume food orally. I want to show you how to talk about eating with a feeding tube. Depending on the location of the feeding tube being a button (stomach) or nose you would sign eat and inject (like pushing a shot/ food into the tube). It is nice to give the child a warning that it is time for him/her to eat. You would sign time (point to watch on wrist) to feed (sign eat and give). This warning allows the child time to transition mentally from whatever he/she was doing to preparing to be fed. This also allows time for the child to feel some control over the situation and may help in reducing some resistance.
Check out this video clip of Joy at the table having a snack. Her dad, Paul is acknowledging her ASL signs and adding additional vocabulary. Remember, we want to expose your child to additional signs with repetition and persistence. *Note- Joy is using a local sign for yogurt from the Ohio School for the Deaf. She signs milk with a Y handshape.*
Need help with ASL signs? Check out these awesome online dictionaries and apps.
Baby Sign Language Dictionary
This is the fear of many parents when I encourage them to use American Sign Language with their children. When children are young (0-3 years old) their brains are the most flexible to learning language. They are continuously creating new pathways and synapses in their brains. Exposing a child to American Sign Language continues to encourage those language pathways to be developed. For children, American Sign Language is easier to produce than spoken language, therefore the child is able to communicate ideas at a much younger age. If you sign with your child from birth, you might see his/her first sign between the ages of 8-12 months. Babies and toddlers will continue to produce signs with their parent when they are given positive feedback and sign repetition. Having the ability to communicate openly with your child using ASL at such a young age can decrease the frustration a child feels this can lead to a reduction in the amount of tantrums and emotional outburst you may experience! Who doesn’t want to skip those terrible twos? Your child now has language and can communicate with you freely and clearly. Do not be surprised if your child doesn’t start speaking verbally as early as other children, remember your child IS speaking to you using American Sign Language (and probably has been communicating a lot earlier that the peers that you are comparing him/her to). As your typical child gets older he/she will begin to transition from using ASL to speech on their own. They will be confident in their speech because the foundation of language was created and reciprocated at such a young age, you may even notice that your child has a larger vocabulary than his/her peers.
If your child has special needs, the use of American Sign Language can be hugely beneficial for basic communication, potty training, anxiety reduction and the reduction of frustration. If your child is in speech therapy most therapist know basic sign language and use it as a bridge to encourage verbalization of words. ASL also uses fine and gross motor skill which can be very beneficial for children with special needs. Using American Sign Language as a family may also create opportunities to interact with the wonderful Deaf community as well as adults and children with a variety of special needs.
Need further proof? Check out these excellent articles.