Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why do we sign?

Piper has been slow to vocally speak.  Kids with Down syndrome tend to have some degree of speech delay (but that doesn’t mean that they ALL will!)  Add to that Piper’s airway was severely constricted until a year ago, and we have some catch-up to play. 

Piper really began making “speech” type sounds late this past winter (March-ish, probably- it took more than six months for the cartilage in her trachea to fully heal), and she’s REALLY taken off since then.  She seems to still be learning how to make her voice do what she wants it to, but as our speech therapist said, she’s only had a few months of practice.  She’s really a lot like a six-month old, I think, in verbalizing.

It does NOT mean, though, that she has a language delay. 

Piper’s receptive language (what she understands someone else saying) is completely age-appropriate.  She understands everything, can follow complex, multi-step directions, and often surprises us when we don’t know she’s listening.  And I’m pretty sure she can spell things like “lunch,” or “cookie,” or “bath.” 

So how do you bridge that gap between what a kid understands and what they’re able to say? 

I was always going to use sign language with my kids.  I signed as a baby, and my parents have always touted the benefits.  There are some theories about negative effects of signing (primarily that it will prevent or delay a child from speaking), but all the studies, surveys, and data show the opposite.  When a child signs, they have a better grasp on language, sentence structure, and vocabulary.  Their IQ is also increased.  And they’re more able to sign at a significantly younger age than say words.  So why not sign?  When we were preparing for Piper’s arrival, we knew that signing to her was going to be even more integral to her development.

We started signing to Piper almost as soon as she came home from the hospital.  Just Mom and Dad to start.  Every time we said “MOM”, we’d sign it at the same time.  I honestly didn’t expect to see a sign for a long time.  Just before she turned six months old, she signed “Mom” for the first time.  It was shortly followed by “Dad” and “Dog.”  When she used them, she wasn’t mimicking us- she was asking for us.  She did them without us showing it first. 

When she turned a year old, she had almost 30 signs.  And she was putting two or three together.  At two, she was doing full sentences, and had almost 250 signs in her repertoire.  She even cracks jokes.

Because she signs, we have alleviated loads of frustration (for both her and us!), we have a wonderful glimpse at the things she’s interested in, and we have a great idea of what she’s capable of doing.

Piper has made some huge speech gains since we started with a new therapist in July.  She’s using PROMPT therapy, and it seems to be working (Piper even prompts herself.)  She’s vocalizing sentences (although the words are, admittedly, approximations, but they’re close enough to understand!), trying more types of sounds, and getting over her extreme over-conscientiousness that has precluded her from showing us what she’s capable of.  We have to remind her to “use her voice” frequently, otherwise she’ll just mouth the word correctly.  Piper works so hard to talk; it’s so heartbreaking to watch her get so frustrated when she can’t do something as well as she wants.  But bygolly if she doesn’t keep going, week after week.  I can only imagine that the frustration level would be multiplied if she didn’t have another way to communicate, too!

I get asked a lot about how we learn our signs.  The most popular route seems to be the “Signing Time” series on DVD.  We have a few of those, and they ARE fun to watch, but Piper’s not really allowed to watch television, so we don’t use those much.  Books work fine, but I have a hard time figuring out the motion of signs sometimes.

So, when we started, I paid attention to the words we said most frequently in our day.  I looked them up on, where you can look up the word and get a video of a real person doing the sign, and then we showed them to Piper.  Once she got the idea of signing down, we’d start looking up signs for things we were going to do (like play with bubbles at the Children’s Museum, for example).  I started with nouns, and then threw in a few adjectives along the way.  She then quickly picked up verbs because you need verbs to make sentences make sense.  Now we’re starting to run out of things to learn, and we’re pushing the word itself instead of the sign. 

So yes- we sign with Piper.  And yes- we expect that she will talk.  No, she does not have hearing problems.  But by signing, we felt like we were giving Piper a way to cope with some of the challenges that come with Down syndrome and allowing her to be a part of the world around her.  Of course we often have to “interpret” for people who don’t know what she’s saying.  But our friends and family have been so great with learning along with her, and if they don’t know what something means, they always ask.  It’s really awesome to see so many people learning for her, too!

I think that signing with Piper has been the single best thing we have done.  It seems that most families with young kiddos with Ds have signed with their kids, and I’m sure they’d agree.  We’re starting with Addy now, too, and I’m not sure that she’s said “mommy” a time or two.  Anyone can benefit- not just kids with special needs!

Although- there is a slight setback.  Piper back-talks her therapists.  She scolded our OT the other day for being “too noisy” when Addy was trying to sleep.  Piper was, of course, just trying to get out of work.  She is two, after all.

(one of her new favorites- it’s accompanied by a “t t t t t”- and we hear it about 480,000 times whenever we go in the car)


(this is one that she gets told more often than she says, but we won’t go there…)


  1. Our daughter spent her first 2 months in the NICU due to fetal hydrops, fluid in her chest cavity and throughout her body. She had failed every hearing test which we were told was probably due to the medications and/or the ventilator she was on. We started signing with her when we brought her home. A few months ago we had tubes put into her ears and now that the fluid in her ears is gone she now has average hearing. The signing has been a huge help in our family and now that she is starting to speak we mainly hear only words that she has been signing. I would recommend it for any new parents.

  2. Great post! I bet Aubrey and Piper could have full blown conversations with their hands! Aubrey has about that many words too. Now that she's in school, she's learning a TON and I'm doing my best just to keep up with her! Keep up the good work.

  3. Totally agree with signing it has been wonderful for us to see what he is interested in, I stopped counting awhile ago I know he has alot. But unlike you I do see big differences with what he understands compared to a typical 2 year old, for instance if I ask him something new like go put your plate up on the sink, he will just look at me with a trying to understand, and I have to guide him to what I want to do, once he has done once or twice he catches on quickly and can do it independantly -anyway I just wanted to say Piper is doing amazing and love that she told the therapist off too funny - Viv