At 15 months, Christie Ann’s youngest son was not speaking and early intervention services were initiated. Christie Ann had begun researching sign language for babies, however, implementation was a bit of a challenge, as her son was not able to attend to the task for more than a few seconds at a time.
The early intervention therapist provided a book of signs and guided Christie Ann as to when to implement the signs. Christie Ann started with just a couple signs. More, Milk and All done, were the first three signs her son learned. Laden with lots of repetition and consistency, her son was signing for “more food” instead of screaming and throwing things. Within a short period of time, her son mastered several signs, and was beginning to verbalize along with use of the signs. Christie Ann states, “I believe signing truly gave Cohen a way to communicate with the world.”
When her son reached age two and a half, he had mastered verbalizing several words and used sign language when he couldn’t articulate the words. This new found communication fostered enhanced development in additional areas. Her son began to point out things and attend to task for longer periods of time.
As her son approached age 4, he began speaking in short sentences and no longer utilized sign language. His articulation improved and was able to communicate most of his basic needs, along with expression of more complex needs. For Christie Ann and her son, signing was the catalyst to effective communication.
The anectodotal evidence from parents such as Christie Ann is strong in that sign language actually helps to develop language and facilitate verbal communication by serving as a bridge.
Speech Pathologists Weigh In on Signing
Melanie Feller, M.A., CCC-SLP, of Alphabet Soup Speech shares, “For typically developing children who may just have a language delay, I always support verbal communication and do not use signs or pictures as supplemental material unless the child is hearing impaired. This is in part due to a review completed in 2013 by Johnson, Smith and Bloom that failed to support claims that signing facilitates language development.”
Feller continues, “For children with disordered language or children who have specific special needs, I examine the child’s individual needs, developmental levels, and unique preferences. From there, in conjuction with the child and parent, I determine the best method to start out with, be that verbal, sign, pictures, gestures, or a combination. This is not static therapy – what works one day may not be helpful the next, so it’s important to “go with the flow” of the child and really tailor each session to their individual needs. In general terms, however, I do not use sign unless the child is hearing impaired.”
Diane Bahr, M.S., CCC-SLP, of Ages and Stages, encourages the use of sign language with young children who may be at-risk for communication difficulties. Bahr states, “Many children’s signs are similar to the natural gestures we use, and gestural communication is often problematic in children with communication difficulties. Some parents ask whether the introduction of sign language will discourage a child from talking. Research in the field of speech-language pathology does not support this. In fact, parents often hear word approximations as children sign. There seems to be a hand-mouth connection in communication. Most of us would have difficulty speaking if our hands were tied behind our backs.”
Speech Pathologists Share Insight into PECs
Bahr additionally recommends using PECs as an augmentative communication tool. Bahr shares, “Prior to the Mayer-Johnson Board Symbols and PECs, there was no picture communication system that was so widely used. However, there are now other symbol systems, and some of them actually offer grammar. PECS can be used with children who are at risk for communication difficulties from an early age. I introduce pictures along with choice-making to my 6-month olds. I believe that interaction with pictures is an excellent early literacy skill and gets parents in the habit of sitting down and talking about pictures with their children.”
Feller prefers not to utilize the PECs approach. Feller shares, “I do not use a formal picture program because the well known formal PECS program is very regimented and behaviorally oriented, making it less than useful to promote true communication.”
Bahr offers additional suggestions from her book, Nobody Every Told Me (or my Mother) THAT!, to promote communication with your child by using pictures and/or signs:
1. Around 6 months of age, begin to introduce pictures and/or signs to go along with activities (eg, beginning the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS, and/or the K & K Sign and Say Verbal Language Kit by Tamara Kasper and Nancy Kaufman). Community hospitals offer sign-language courses for parents and babies.
2. Introduce picture and/or signs to your baby gradually (ie, not to many at one time.)
3. Work toward joint attention (ie, where you and your baby look at picture and objects together).
4. Make activities fun for you and your baby (eg, nonchalantly looking at and labeling pictures or signing). Don’t stress yourself or your baby. Children with special needs are particularly sensitive to stress, and you don’t need any extra stress as a parent.
5. After you have introduced pictures or signs a few times, you may see your baby look toward the concept you are mentioning.
6. Working with pictures is a nice early literacy activity for any child. I often introduce the first sets of pictures from the Kaufman Speech Praxis Treatment Kit around 6 months of age to my little clients who are at risk for speech problems.
If your child’s language is delayed and you are seeking communication solutions, meet with your speech language pathologist to determine the most appropriate therapeutic approach for your child. Share your interest in Sign Language and PECs with your speech therapist and discuss whether these options are a good fit for your child.