11 May 2009, under
Fatherhood; More Fatherhood articles...
Communication through Signing
Communicating with your Child
When we think of communication, almost always our first impulse is to relate communication to speech and speaking. Conversation, dialogue, monologue and soliloquy are all means in which we can convey our message by using words and articulating them in a way that can be understood by our audience. To the majority of us, speech is a skill or facet that develops quite naturally and as a matter of course in our development as individuals.
We learn as children from those around us, initially our parents and siblings and then from friends, peers and ultimately our teachers as we progress on our educational path. To some, speech and language become essential tools in professional life, to others it is merely a means to an end but what is certain is that to all, speech is a vital component to maintaining a standard of living in accordance with individual circumstances. To imagine ones-self without the powers of natural speech and communicative delivery is a concept quite alien to most of us. We can understand, perhaps even empathise, but we will never truly grasp the reality of such a situation.
So then, what of those to whom speech does not come naturally and is something that is a constant source of struggle, conflict and hardship? What of those with developmental and learning difficulties? What of those like my Son?
My Son Noah has Down Syndrome and can potentially expect delays in his speech and language development. Potentially at this stage because, at ten months old, it is too early to be able to say with any certainty how his development will progress, however this area of development in children and adults with Down Syndrome can traditionally be one of the more common attributes associated with this Syndrome. Of course, the variance between individuals is vast, whilst some will certainly struggle, others will experience little to no significant delays in speech and language development, whilst many others will fill the expanse in between. As in every area of life, everyone is different and nobody conforms to the textbook.
Communication itself is a far wider spectrum than merely speech and speaking. As we are discovering with and through Noah, the ability to communicate goes way beyond merely the formation of words. Noah currently attends a Speech and Language therapist who prescribes a healthy dose of fun games and activities for him to work on each day, so as to give him the best possible chance to hone his communication skills. As an example, through stacking cups upon his vocal command, he learns about cause and effect. Banging toys together enhances his bilateral hand function and selecting one favourite toy over another improves and develops his choice-making abilities. None of these activities are purely focused on speech, but all are intrinsically bound up in Communication and will ultimately aid his speech and language skills. One of the major communicative means that is used with children who have learning difficulties is visual sign language, more commonly referred to as 'baby-signing' , in Ireland this is known as Lámh and this is something we practice with Noah.
Lámh was developed in Ireland in 1982 by Speech and Language therapists, Psychologists and Teachers and has evolved since that time by incorporating the specific needs of parents and family members. Lámh comprises some 500 individual signs ranging across Object signs (e.g. book, ball, apple), Action signs (e.g. eat, drink, wash), People signs (e.g. Boy, Mummy, Daddy), Social signs (e.g. Hello, Yes, Thank-You) and Modifier signs (e.g. good, bold, more). Lámh is based on Irish Sign Language (ISL) and many signs will be the same however a number of Lámh signs are simplified versions of ISL signs and do not involve as complex hand shapes and/or movements. When using Lámh signs with a person, the spoken word is always used in conjunction with the visual sign. This allows the person to both see and hear the message being portrayed and in turn can help them to understand and learn the word more clearly.
As people with learning difficulties can have difficulties in communicating their message through delayed speech development, this can lead to frustration as words are often required to be repeated until they are clearly understood. A medium such as Lámh minimises the need for second guessing what a person is trying to say as the sign can be immediately recognised if the spoken word is not so, ultimately allowing the person to become more relaxed in their communication, which in itself can often help in producing and pronouncing words more clearly.
When using Lámh with Noah, we have started with a few simple signs. Noah and Daddy play with the 'ball' on the floor, Mummy gives Noah something to 'eat' and 'drink' and Noah is a 'good' boy when he takes a mouthful of said food or drink. There are many rules to follow when using Lámh and firstly would be to attend a course given by a qualified Lámh teacher, it is not something that should be picked up from merely looking at the picture cards provided. It is very important when signing that you are facing the child and they can clearly see and hear the sign being made. Not correcting mistakes in the early stages is important, whilst keeping the signs used consistent and correct, even if the child makes it incorrectly themselves, is another important factor.
Lámh signs can be incorporated into songs and nursery rhymes too as Itsy-Bitsy Spider will attest to in our house, making it a fun activity encouraging the child to join in with. Further to the songs, we also try to incorporate Lámh signs into Noah's story books where we can prior to bedtime. Naturally at this early stage with Noah, we are not expecting him to start signing back to us, however our hope is that the messages we are sending him are slowly but surely infiltrating his understanding, so that, in time, he is able to communicate clearly with us, either through speech and language or through Lámh signing.
In contrast to the title of this article, Lámh is not 'all' you need but it certainly provides a good set of tools to get you started on the road to communicating with your child and, hopefully, for them to start to communicate back to you.
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