In teaching my son sign language, I also simultaneously taught him important pre-school concepts as well as cuing strategies to elicit sounds and eventually words. More importantly though, I gave him a way to quickly and efficiently express his thoughts when his voice wasn’t ready to. You can read more about the all of the ways we helped him communicate and the hierarchy in which we did it here.
Here are the most efficient ways that helped us teach sign language to our non-verbal son.
Simple, meaningful signs to begin with.
We chose the signs “more”, and “open” to start with. Curious George and apple were among his first signs as well because they were very meaningful and motivating for him. We used books and songs to help nurture use of those signs.
We accepted approximations and made up signs. His favorite thing in the entire world was Curious George, but he couldn’t sign monkey because of motor planning difficulties. So, the sign for Curious George became a hand behind his back when I reinforced it by turning on Curious George or talking about an episode whenever he did that gesture.
I took classes at the Rochester School for the Deaf where I also consulted with the administration and was able to get paired up with a deaf parent who was willing to meet me weekly to teach me signs in a conversational setting. She also had a deaf son with apraxia the same age as my son. Everything I learned I took home and modeled for my son.
After I would sign a word I physically helped his hands make the sign and encouraged him to do it too as well as encouraged him to say a sound with the sign. Say “ah” while I physically helped his hands make the signs for open. Then said OPEN as I encouraged him to continue making the sign on his own. It is important to note I backed off when he seemed uncomfortable. My life as a SLP and as his mother forced me to recognize that every action I take needs to be carefully considered.
SIGNING TIME DVDS!!!!
Single BEST thing I ever encouraged to help him (and me) learn sign language. He watched the same DVD I rented from the library for weeks before he even attempted to make a sign, but when he finally did the floodgates opened.
Once we had a nice vocabulary in sign language established I created lists using their website to share with family to help them learn what he knew. I also LOVED their short, easy to follow videos to help me learn signs on the spot. There was a small membership fee, but it was totally worth it.
DVDS The slow, repetitive nature of the Preschool Prep DVDS (phonics letter sounds, letters, numbers, and sight words) were perfect for sitting together and learning the sign for every concept on the show. I would research the sign before hand, then sit with him to watch the DVDS. I would show him the sign, physically help his hands do it, say the the word out loud, ask him to do it, etc. over and over again. Soon, he could sign letter sounds, sight words, letters, and numbers. He also has hyperlexia, but I am convinced he learned how to read before he could speak because of this method. This also helped him be able to use sign language to cue himself to elicit individual phonemes (sounds) and put more than one sound together or cue himself if he missed a sound in the middle of a word. Then, when he started putting sentences together later I was able to use the signs he knew for the sight words to help cue him to remember to say the little words in sentences that kids with apraxia often leave out like to, the, is, it, etc.
It took my son months to attempt signing independently, but when he did the flood gates were opened and he wanted more. He was fluent enough by age 3 that he could easily communicate with me and other children at the local school for the deaf where we had play dates. Those play dates really helped him gain confidence in interacting with other children.
UPDATE: A reader was so kind to share with me this information and I have had the privilege to receive permission to edit this article in order to share this important piece… “Our daughter is deaf with limb apraxia that affects her signing. She sometimes signs outside of the signing ‘window’ so signs may not be as recognizable to others as they might be. Sometimes she used to place her hands under the desk and the teacher would tell me she never signed. Ultimately an OT observer in the class pointed out that her hands were signing under the desk where the teacher couldn’t see them. the placement of her hands was part of the apraxia. Hand over hand signing has helped alot. Also using written words as prompts has helped, too. Remembering the hierarchy of signs (one-handed signs probably easier than two-handed signs, signs closer to the body or moving toward the body easier than signs away from or moving away from the body, and one-hand moving rather than two hands moving (coffee, for example) are easier) can help when introducing signs.”
The Homeschooling SLP-September 2017 www.homeeducatingapraxia.com