Contentious Communication Failure

One of the most contentious aspects of rearing Deaf kids is the use of sign language.  Many researchers have many opinions.  Ask adult Deaf people and you will hear many stories – some terrible and some – not so terrible.  The myths that surround using sign or a manual or visual language with kids are pervasive.  Things like – “I want my kid to talk” or “If I sign, they won’t talk”.  What if we removed all these concerns and replaced them with I want my child to be successful academically, socially, financially, and romantically – your basic happiness package.

If the healthcare professionals you come in contact with during those early years – specifically your pediatrician and then possibly early intervention services including Audiologists and Speech and Language Pathologists – explain calmly to you that you should just wait and see – maybe they will learn to talk on their own – your child will figure it out – that using listening techniques and verbal only language will make their child hear and talk – as a parent – you are pretty likely to listen to that and as a parent – you want to hear that for several reasons –

1. you don’t have to change yourself to accommodate your child’s language needs,

2. you don’t have to see that your child will need you as a strong advocate in the educational system and back to 1. ,

3. you don’t have to accept the blame for anything bad that happens as the result of your inaction in addressing your child’s language needs and back to 1.

4. you can believe your child isn’t different, damaged, broken, a medical problem, wrong, bad, hopeless, stupid, an eyesore, not educable, will never amount to anything, can’t work, is disabled, can’t have children, drive a car, have friends, have a life, etc. and back to 1.

And if one of these professionals says to you calmly and authoritatively, “you can just get a cochlear implant and then the kid hears fine – look up AG Bell or the Clark school”.  All fine choices – really for some kids and some families – these options work great!  But for the families that it doesn’t work – called “Oral Failures”  – as early as 4 or 5 years old, these kids are saddled with their parent’s disappointment and sense of failure.  And they know they can’t do something other people can do – they can’t talk or communicate with almost everyone else they know.  Pretty tough way to start a life.

Why do I care?  What makes me so passionate about this?  It is completely preventable.  By simply expanding the sign vocabulary base of EVERY child beyond Bye-Bye, we can completely and 100% prevent oral failures, give them a voice to communicate and allow their brains to develop naturally.  Why wouldn’t you want your kid to learn a new language or a second language?  It’s all about spin and marketing.

If I sign my kid won’t learn to talk.  and I say if you aren’t heard by your kid – how can she learn to talk?

If I allow my deaf child to sign – I’ll be ostracized by my community, friends and family!

If you don’t learn to communicate with your child – you have lost them forever.  If that means you learn 100 or more signs – just so you can communicate and know your child – why aren’t you willing to do that? Why don’t you want to know your child?  Is your community, friends and other family more important than this child?

Please don’t misunderstand me – it is that simple – why don’t you want to meet your child where they are instead of making them come to you.  Eventually, they will communicate the best way they see fit.  Don’t hang your whole relationship to your child on the spoken word – you may not like that outcome after all.

You know your kid best – that’s what we always say to parents – but what if you don’t?


Sign Language and you!

What do experts say about language choices?


Well, we all know anyone can say anything and others think they are an expert based on the number of classes they have taken or the number of years of experience or whatever.  Me?  I have taken lots of classes, gotten lots of training and I may or may not be considered an expert – you can decide who you want to believe.  And that is where statistics and published research can guide you, sway you, convince you, change your mind – whatever you want to call it.  That AH HA! moment when you suddenly bring everything you know (or want to know) about something and suddenly – it all make sense in your mind.

I work in the field of early intervention.  I study children and watch how they react to stimulus.  I am NOT a researcher – I do not create studies or publish articles.  I put obstacles in children’s paths to see what they will do.  I encourage parents to do this as well because it makes kids make choices and solve problems!

A friend of mine shared a “paper” with me that was a commentary by no less than 7 PhD people.  The title of this paper is called “Language Choices for Deaf Infants: Advice for Parents Regarding Sign Languages”.   I do not have permission to share this with you ( I didn’t ask)  but I will include their names at the bottom of this post if you want to get more info from them.  If you need people with education telling you what is what – 7 PhDs should be adequate!

What does it mean?  What kind of advice could be coming from PhD people?  I will be paraphrasing and summarizing – some of the paper is jargon or info about how they came to their conclusions.  The leading paragraph is about how medical professionals try to avoid biasing parents on how to raise their children and allow for people to have different cultures and ways of raising children.  However, this is one area where things can get fairly confusing.  For example, if your child only has 1 leg for whatever reason, the recommendation will likely be prosthesis – a mechanical leg to replace their leg.  If your child cannot see well – glasses or corrective lenses are prescribed – no big deal, right?  If you child has Cerebral Palsy – the recommendations may include special exercises to help with mobility – also ok, right?  If a child cannot speak due to a physical and OBVIOUS ABNORMALITY – then it’s ok to use other communication strategies, right?  Like Stephen Hawking using eye gaze to communicate with.  If a child has Autism and doesn’t speak or is Non-verbal – then it’s ok if that kiddo signs (at least until they go to school where very likely – they will be denied an ASL interpreter because they can hear and despite the only communication method they use is ASL) {another blog}   So, why are DEAF kids denied sign language when clearly – they cannot hear a spoken language.  Why are parents ALLOWED to choose to not use sign language?  In the interest in autonomy and “Parent Choice” – parents are allowed to try anything they want when it comes to this area.  In other countries – it is a crime punishable by having your child removed from your custody if you do not learn to sign by the time the kid is a certain age.  Not in America – we value parent choice in this arena.  This paper SAYS doctors and medical professionals should persuade parents to learn and teach sign language – that is ETHICALLY MANDATORY (my emphasis – this is all my emphasis though J)

Many parents and medical professionals believe that Cochlear Implants (CI) give children the hearing they need in order to ONLY use oral language.  These professionals OFTEN do not acknowledge the reality that CIs do not replace normal hearing.  Cochlear Implants take sound and transform it into electrical impulses delivered directly to the cochlear nerve.  The CI child needs to undergo LONG-TERM, EXTENSIVE training to interpret those impulses.  Language acquisition is age zero to 5 years old.  Realistically – when can a child have extensive long term training?  Just think about a group of Pre-K children age 4 (well into their 5 year window of opportunity to acquire language) and you can see that having a group of them is nearly impossible to control much less extensively train.  While kids with CIs are being pulled out of a classroom to be taught how to interpret electrical impulses – their peers are learning how to read and write.  Not exactly a fair trade off –  these kids are already behind!

According to this paper – the neuronal plasticity of the brain with respect to language acquisition is BEFORE age 3 and if a child is not fluent in ANY language before age 5 that child may not ever achieve fluency in ANY language.  At the same time – there is an increase in the development of brain tissue for visual input.

Sign languages provide this visual input; access to signing can ensure language acquisition for Deaf children and avoid cognitive deficits associated with linguistic deprivation.  A recent panel of specialists concluded that all children born deaf should be taught a sign language immediately.

The deaf child that signs does better academically than the deaf child that doesn’t sign.  And some studies show that deaf children with Deaf parents often score higher academically than their hearing counterparts.

This team of 7 PhDs is a team that works with deaf children and wrote this paper to help pediatricians have answers for parents that they encounter with deaf children.  Here are the questions they answered:

What will give my child the best chances of learning to talk?

The starting point is language acquisition which is not necessarily speech.  Both spoken and signed languages are treated as equals in the brain.  A child must understand the concept of language communication before they can use language to communicate. As a child engages in accessible language communication – they begin to use it themselves naturally.  Signed languages are accessible to all deaf children or children with hearing loss – spoken language may only be accessible to children with hearing aids or cochlear implants.  There is a huge amount of research proving that introducing two languages does not interfere with the acquisition of either.  Just looking at the families I work with where the parents or grandparents only speak Spanish but the kiddo uses English appropriately demonstrates that the brain is perfectly capable of learning more than 1 language at a time.

Many studies show signing supports the development of spoken language and reading skills in CI children.  Then they discussed how it seems to increase incrementally from just a CI and spoken language to CI children with Deaf parents out performing other groups regardless of hearing status presumably due to sign competence.

How can I teach my child signing if I don’t sign myself?

Even if the parent’s language skills aren’t perfect – the use of the language is important to the language development of the child.  Children need to interact directly through language with their family members to develop healthy relationships with those members – otherwise the child ends up feel excluded and isolated in their own home – always an outsider.  When a hearing mother signs with her deaf child, the child shows early language expressiveness on a par with hearing peers regardless of the mother’s signing skills.

Deaf children who have good family relationships have a better chance of developing healthy psychosocial identities.

When children are exposed to good sign language models – they learn to sign fluently even if their family does not.

Won’t there be less family disruption and less work if I raise my child strictly orally?

The presence of a deaf child changes family dynamics regardless of the language you use.  Oral language requires a level of commitment on the part of the child to learn to communicate with spoken language.  It requires a large amount of time and energy on the part of both parent and child.  There are other consequences as well – if the child doesn’t have the ability to develop spoken language the time invested is wasted and that time cannot be replaced in the language acquisition limits and that child will most likely experience a sense of failure internally as a result of not learning to talk.

On the other hand, signed language allows for the child to develop cognitively and avoid family frustration. Sign language also allows the deaf child to participate in all communication that is signed by the family – the child can acquire knowledge, catch jokes, appreciate nuances of language necessary to socialize, relax and tell their own story.  The family must put in the time to match the newest member’s language needs so the responsibility for communication is not placed on a zero to 5 year old.  Grownups and other family members MUST be willing to adapt to the deaf child’s communication needs.  It is not up to a 1 month old child to provide language feedback to a parent – but it is up to the parent to provide language to the child.

Won’t signing adversely affect my child’s academic achievements?  After all, bilingualism is confusing.

Good signing skills promote early literacy. A child needs a solid foundation in a first language to understand what literacy is all about and SIGN LANGUAGE is the BEST way to give a deaf child that foundation.

Bilingualism has the advantage in that the bilingual brain is quick, focused and flexible.  Frequent juggling between languages increases cognitive benefit.  Bilinguals also show an increase in language distinctions which is an advantage in language processing.  Bilingualism has been shown to retard the onset of dementia.  AND being raised bilingual improved language functioning and high level cognitive skills in children with language impairments.  Which is why I always recommend learning  sign language for any and all speech and language delays!

Can’t we wait to see if our child succeeds with a CI before working on learning to sign?

The earlier children are exposed to language the greater the guarantee of fluency.  Early intervention services delivered BEFORE 6 months of age result in better receptive and expressive language.  If parents wait for a CI – many months of language acquisition is lost – even if the child is only 6 months old when implanted – not likely at this time- resulting in the first 6 months of life – the child is not exposed to any language.

But won’t I lose my child to deaf culture?

Parents who sign do not lose their child – it actually increases their bond with that child and brings the parent into the child’s experience.  A deaf child will always have a different culture than a hearing parent – but with sign language – the basic tools of communicating and expression are not lost between the parent and the child.


My conclusion:

If you have a child – you should learn to sign regardless of their ability to hear or speak or see or their mobility or their physical appearance – because signing increases cognitive function is ALL children and adults.  If we as a society value higher functioning people in our society – then we should all be signing just because it makes our brains better and more flexible.


The team that wrote this article are: Tom Humhries, PhD., Poorna Kushalnagar, PhD., Guarav Mathur, PhD., Donna Jo Napoli, PhD., Carol Padden, PhD., Christian Rathman, PhD. And Scott Smith, PhD., MPH.

All credit goes to them for creating this article.


Please leave comments or questions below!  Tell me your story about sign language!

Autism, video games and social learning, Part II

Autism, Video Games and Social Learning, Part 2

  1. Farrell Cafferata


Just a quick note about how my son, Dean, who has Autism uses the characters in video games to learn about what it is like to be a different person.  The combinations are endless about what you can wear, the armor that protects you and of course, guns and weapons galore!

Another key component is that you are often required to develop more than 1 character or persona in a game.  Each of these characters has a major set of differences and abilities.  While developing these characters, the gamer must use what weapons or inventory that belongs to that character.  For example, a Mage has magical properties and magical weapons such as spells and potions.  In order to develop potions as a weapon or a heath enhancer, the gamer must learn the recipe that creates the desired outcome.  Often times these are minor quests to pursue the ingredients or other necessary items to create the desired weapon or armor or whatever.  The soldier needs different weapons and the guide or assistant needs other things like stealth or multiple languages or some other necessary component to be successful.

Each Character has a set of parameters that they must stick to.  Often the female character has an advantage that makes her more desirable to play as her.  I have heard a number of squabbles in this group of 12 to 13 year old boys about who is getting to be the girl!

From a social learning standpoint, the ability to take on another’s persona seems pretty important.  When my son Quinn was small, he would become very upset if you suggested he was a girl – enraged is more like it.  Just the thought of being something other than what he is inside was not ok for him.  Dean on the other hand, even with very limited pretending skills that came with his Autism, seemed to be very okay with being someone else for a time.  I recognize that pretend play has a huge impact on brain development and specifically on empathy.  How many times have you been told, “if you could just walk in my shoes for 1 mile…” this idea of empathy is critical in social learning.  Dean has learned that different people bring different skills or abilities to a situation and that even if they are not equal or fair, they are required to complete a mission or an objective.

Not everyone has to participate equally, they just have to participate.  Often I have heard him say that if they only have 4 people – they cannot win – they always need a complete team.  Dean’s teacher’s remarked how great he is at encouraging others to remember the assignment or desired outcome, to help others on his team or in his group when they seems to be going off course.  He does this with kindness and humor.  Everyone likes him and wants him to be in their group.  He is thoughtful and caring about others and how things are going for them.  Do I think he learned that from the game, “Call of Duty”?  Um, no.  But I do think he has learned how it feels when others refuse to help him or revive him when he has been taken out of the action.  He is very attentive to assisting others when they need help.  This may be very self serving – since it restores the whole team to a functional unit and if he wants to win, he knows he needs that.  Or it could be that he knows how yucky it feels when others don’t help you when you need it.

For me – at this point his motivation is less important than the learned behavior of helping others.  Since we know so little about how Autism really affects each individual, this may be as good as it gets for Dean.  He may never be truly empathetic, but he can act in empathetic ways.  In a social environment, that is more important.

I also have a very fond memory of a terrifying moment in Dean’s life.  When he was probably about 3 years old, he had night terrors.  Often the only thing that would bring him out of it was watching Thomas on TV.  I cannot remember all the details, but at one point – very late at night, he came running into my bedroom, crying and begging me to come and help and these animals really need my help.  He was sobbing and he grabbed my arm and began pulling me out of bed.  I jumped up – unable to imagine what was happening.  He pulled me into the TV room and on the TV was a commercial for the SPCA which showed horrible pictures of abused dogs and cats.  He was sobbing and saying over and over that we must help these poor dogs and kitties.  It took me and hour to calm him down and explain that sometimes bad people do bad things and that of course we would do what we could to help these poor animals to be in a better place.  Dean was always very susceptible to these kinds of commercials and I cursed under my breath every time one came on.  He saw the Save the Children commercial too.  That was devastating to him.  So, maybe for him, he already has a good dose of empathetic capacity.

Just the other day I asked if there were Black guys in the cast of characters he was playing with.  He said yes, and showed his version of that character.  He looked pretty fierce.  He showed me his female character – who is pretty cool looking!

I do NOT appreciate the scantily clad female characters in Video games and how their bare midriff or cleavage is “important” to her character development.  I think that is crap!  And if I were designing a video game – I would want my armor to protect ALL of my body regardless of gender.

Good thing/bad thing – you can choose from many combinations of elements for garments, weapons, abilities, etc., but you can only choose from what the game provides or whatever the game designer decides is important for the game.   Are game designers known for their desire to make social change in the interest of equality and better treatment of all people?  No, I don’t think so.

Where do I think game design should go?  The types of beings is endless – with aliens, cyborgs, anthropomorphic figures – all of that.  What would I add in to be timely in a social change kind of way?   I would add in Gay and Bi and Trans characters.  I would add in more races of people, maybe even a little bit more socioeconomic factors.

Where do I think social learning and all of that come together?  When playing as a character for hours and hours, developing their abilities, creating their armor, improving their skills and developing their relationships, how can you NOT feel like you know this person and like them?  How can you not see that they are JUST like you and at the same time – obviously not you.  Where do we learn that all beings are created equal in level one and it’s up to us to develop our character as we see fit.  How many times do we get to start over with a new character, giving us the opportunity to develop different characteristics just to “try it on”?  How often do we end up selecting elements that truly reflect who we are as people and not as the characters we create.  How well does a video game give us the opportunity to “be” someone or something else until we learn the fundamental lesson of that being’s existence?

I know that seems like a heavy load for a video game to bear, but that is where social learning comes in – peer activities, social situations where getting your needs met requires that you speak up and advocate for yourself, that you can be anything you want – you choose as you go and develop your Self in a safe environment, you can change your mind and be something else – without giving up everything you have.  I think it’s a brilliant way for kids with Autism explore a social environment and make mistakes that do not cost them their school environment or other peers or friends.

Dean plays with his classmates and has created friendships from his old school to his new school classmates.  They all play together now and are friends.  Based on where we live and where his friends live – he has created a network of friends across the USA – how many other kids with Autism can claim that? Actually, how many kids can claim that – I guess all the ones that create and develop friendships on line through video games.

Final thought – if I can provide my son an opportunity to meet, and challenge his peers in a social environment and have his needs respected and met – how can I deny him his time on line?  He is such a nice boy as a result!

Autism, social learning and video games part 1

Where can I really start this huge topic?  Right where it effects me the most – at home.  My oldest son has Autism and by that I mean he has some classic autism behaviors and some not so Autism behaviors.  He is “on the Spectrum”.  That means you have some number of behaviors that are on this very long list of what we are currently labeling Autistic behaviors.

When Dean was about 2 years old, he became obsessed with Thomas the Tank engine and all things Thomas.  He has thousands of dollars of train sets, characters, movies, clothing, a bed spread; etc – anything with Thomas on it – was good.  I found a Thomas matching game on line (mind you this was over a decade ago and things have changed a lot!) and we switched the mouse buttons so he could select things by simply squeezing the mouse.  He learned how to spell his name as his password in about 2 weeks.  After that – there was no stopping him.  He could watch movie clips, play games, see stories, see pictures of his favorite characters.  At one point, Percy was his favorite – try to imagine a 2 year old who cannot say “R” saying Percy – yep, we laughed too!  Anyway, this was the beginning of learning for Dean.  He was extremely motivated and capable of interacting with Thomas on the computer.  Every chance he had – he was on the computer.

We graduated to a Wii when Dean was 4 or so.  He had to develop so many fine motor skills to use the remote.  He figured out how to change games, watch Netflix, download content, whatever he wanted – he managed it.  All of these games gave him eye-hand coordination as well as the beginning of his perseverance in completing levels and goals or missions or whatever the game required.  He learned to look around and that everything was there – if he was willing to slow down and find it.  All games come with their own solutions – just because you haven’t found it yet – doesn’t mean you can’t if you will just keep looking!

His games became more social as his little brother, Quinn, came along.  At first, Quinn just watched – he watched for hours – commenting and discussing with Dean why he choose this or that or whatever.  He was not really interested in playing.  But as time went on and the games increased in difficulty and fun, Quinn became more interested and soon we only purchased games that at least 2 people could play.  They were very good sports with each other for the most part.  Occasionally a squabble would break out about playing this game or that or whose turn was it anyway.

Then we graduated to an Xbox 360.  Now, we really had a social life!  The Xbox 360 allows you to have 99 friends.  Dean had 99 best friends in a week!  His friends are from all over the world – different ages, genders, and cultures.  Some people he only plays with at 5 am and others only at 10 pm, depending on their geographical location.

We had to create some very strict rules with dire consequences.  No personal information was to be shared and he could only use the gamer tag he had from the Xbox – Autum53. He could also not purchase anything in a game without asking me first.   There were a couple of slips initially and there was much crying and lamentations during that week he couldn’t play at all.  But that only happened again 1 time.  He was severely impressed with the idea that no Xbox meant his life was over (in his mind) and he couldn’t just jeopardize that for some short term gain.

The thing that has impressed me the most with these games is not their graphics – although they are remarkable.  It is the many options that are included in each game, character, level or mission.  For example, when Dean pulls up a game in which 5 random players or his friends engage in a mission, he will quickly run through each opponent’s weaponry, armor and skill level.  He knows right then if he selected a gun or ammunition or armor that will beat the other team or if he cannot hope to beat their choices of weapons.  He also knows who to stay away from during a match if that player is much higher in skill level or if they have an advantage over him.  All in less than 5 seconds – I timed him.  He knows what the other team is likely to do.  If he is given the choice to invite his team, he chooses carefully based on the game he is playing, the level of difficulty and the skill of his friends.  He will only select his friends that can compete at the same level that he wants to.  These seem like simple things but really to be able to asses a situation in the amount of time he has after the teams are selected and before the beginning of a match, it is impressive.

When Quinn decides what game to play, he almost always selects a solitary game where teamwork is either non-existent or AI within the game.  He doesn’t want to be bothered by other people.  He does not share Dean’s enthusiasm for team sports or other people.  He prefers to be able to work at his pace and not feel pressure to perform.  He has some motor planning issues and they are very evident when he plays a game that requires he react quickly – his reaction is to stop playing!  He gives up easily.  He prefers RPG or Role Playing Game where he makes decisions about where he goes and how he responds to other characters on a sentence level.  Dean is more like “run around and kill everything”.  Quinn likes strategy and stealth games.

Social learning is something we are always talking about for our kids with Autism.  I have made the decision to allow my kid to play graphically violent games in the name of social learning.  It may sound crazy but the benefits outweigh the negatives in my mind. I have been through many agonizing moments about whether I made a good decision to allow him to play with the “adult” concepts like death and killing, suffering and other unrealistic obstacles and barriers to living.  I tried to think about this decision based on my cultural values and the thinking of a larger platform of cultural values.  Yes, he may have witnessed thousands of anthropomorphic figures dying or killing them outright, he also learned the value of life in ways you just cannot be taught by those little stories we tell or by watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  These games have taught Dean that there are always modifications that he can make to gain an advantage and that every situation is unique and has it’s own advantages to be discovered and used to be successful.

Returning to a comment I made earlier, Dean sizes up his opponents and their choices in a split second.  He also analyzes his own teammate’s strengths and weaknesses before he starts.  These skills come from observing others and learning how they made their decisions which created their actions. In short –  Social learning.  These games label the behavior and actions of the other players.  This provides Dean the opportunity to make the same social mistake over and over and over without real life consequences.  He has learned what it feels like when his teammates treat him the same way he treats them – talk about learning about fairness!  And, he has learned who consistently treats him poorly and now almost immediately will “kick” out the offensive player.  If there are players that swear or cause disruptions he reports them to the gamers authority as being a problem.  There is justice in the gamer world and you can be banned from a game for offensive behavior and also banned for LIFE for a particular game.  Dean learned early that if I heard swearing on a game that he was not allowed to continue playing that game or at all.  He learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t worth it to be “cool” and accept swearing and other bad behavior when he lost his privileges because of someone else’s bad decisions.

I monitor their game playing every time they are on line.  I am in the same room as they are when they are playing on line so I can monitor their behavior as well as their teammates.  That is not to say that they are supervised every minute they are playing because I also run a household and do laundry and making dinner, etc.  These are calculated risks in a safe environment – which means they know that I could always walk in and see what they are doing or saying.  I am providing that structure and a standard of behavior I think they need with opportunities to try it if I am not there every second.  I have caught them doing things I did not approve of and then used that as a teachable moment.  It helps to have someone else’s bad behavior to demonstrate how others feel and act and how we get to choose what we do or act or feel.

In reflecting on my cultural values about death and suffering and “playing as learning”,  I think I am using the current technology to my advantage.

I know several other families that pride themselves that there is no gaming in their houses.  I have found their kids to be self centered and under exposed to other ways of living.  That will be covered under another blog though! Am I suggesting that this is an easy decision? No, it’s expensive as well.  But for my kid – I think these experiences have made him a better person.  He can talk to other people he has not ever met before. He can form an alliance, build a team and create leadership opportunities at the drop of a hat.  He can earn the respect of other players enough that they will elect him or promote him to the leadership position.  All of these skills translate to real life situations in a work environment or school since he is in 6th grade.  I don’t know too many other opportunities to get elected to a leader position in a regular classroom environment in the same way – especially for a child with Autism.

I will continue to add more blogs about this topic and I welcome your comments and questions.

Language Acqusition

Language acquisition is a very fancy term for taking up language in a way a person can then use that language.  We use language to organize information and concepts, build upon prior knowledge and explain what we want to communicate.

Often I work with kids that are struggling to uptake language for a variety of reasons.  We use many different techniques depending on the nature of the difficulties.  However, the research on using ASL or sign language is extremely clear that teaching, using and communicating through sign language can increase a child’s IQ test result by as much as 8 – 12 points.  That is a significant jump!  Who wouldn’t want that for their child?  Especially if your child has a developmental delay.

That is why I adhere to the Communication at all costs philosophy.  Without language, a child cannot communicate or understand you nor you them.

We can use a picture schedule, words, symbols and signs to create meaning for objects in the environment.  Once the kiddo has learned the name of things – they can then manipulate them as a concept.  For example, if my kid knows that I am Mommy and he is Daddy, he can say, “No, I want Daddy”.  Perfect communication – this can be conveyed through a picture of Daddy, a word on a card – Dad, or the sign for daddy or the spoken word, Dad. These are the building blocks of communication – using discreet units that mean something.

When a kiddo says she has a preference for something, her brain is creating a decision and communicating that decision.  This is an opportunity to develop their brain.  When I work with a family, we work on figuring out how the child will communicate and then we follow their lead – we want to match their communication preference because as adults, we have the ability to change our behavior.  A baby or a small child does not have the resources to match our communication preference.

This is harder than it appears – but we strive to match their needs.  Sometimes, just talking about the issues helps parents to see the challenges faced by their child.

If your child is having a hard time learning to speak – take a few minutes and see if she is communicating through some other way – pointing, grunting, crying or some other way and then try to adapt to her method of communicating and then bridge the gap between your method and hers.


If you have questions, please feel free to leave me a comment or questions and I will respond!


When I found out my son had Autism

I was 40 years old when my son Dean was born.  I had always wanted to have kids – like 10 would have suited me fine!  I had waited a very long time – 5 years waiting to adopt – no dice!  Every birth mom that selected us changed her mind and kept the baby.  After that my partner decided that perhaps she wanted to get pregnant.  We were trying while still waiting to adopt. My partner was 45 and in menopause already!  So, we talked to a fertility specialist and went through all the stuff you have to do when you want to get pregnant and you are already in menopause.  It was horrible.  Then the day came and we were ready to go – it snowed but we were ready to drive through anything!  So off we went and he was born! Hooray!  Awesome day – beyond measure – bringing my own son home was the best feeling in the world.

We had the usual babyhood – except he could eat two 8 ounce bottles of formula back to back and grew every time he took a breath!  He was on the average growth chart 1 time in his life – at birth.  After that – he was so far above it they could barely chart it.  We saw an endocrinologist just in case.  He learned words and finally to walk at 16 months.  By then his brother had been born and it was extremely hard to carry him at 45 pounds and a new born! So, he learned to walk!  Then he lost his words – all of them down to Mommy, ball and cup.  He flapped his hands with his mouth wide open.  When he was in a chair, he would flap his feet.  We now know that is self stimulating behavior.  We went to our doctor and he said Dean was just excited and suggested we wait a few months to see if he would regain his words.  Dean was flat and couldn’t hold himself up.  There was no belly time – he couldn’t lift his head off the carpet and he would just cry. We went back and got a referral to our early intervention services.  They scheduled an intake with tests and scheduled a meeting.

When we arrived, Dean took the hand of the therapist and walked through a locked double door – never looking back for me or my partner.  He was overly social and would approach anyone – especially men.  When we went in, we were met by a team of about 5 people who were evaluating him.  They asked if it would be ok if others sat in – turned out that 20 people came in to observe – that was the last time that ever happened at early intervention – why? because of how it changed the whole dynamic of the MDT.  Anyway – MDT – Multidisciplinary Team evaluation is where you start to see if your kid is eligible for services.  Every state is different and has different eligibility requirements and thresholds. Anyway, they asked him to do all these things – many of which I knew he couldn’t do – like drink out of an open cup.  They let him try 3 times – infuriated me since he wore all that juice three times.  Would have been nice to be forewarned that he might get wet . . .  .anyway, they determined that he was a puzzle.  He clearly had autistic behaviors – like the hand flapping and mouth open, flapping hands and shaking with intensity, twirling and hooting.  He definitely had sensory integration issues and loved to hang upside down. So, we qualified – he was delayed in several areas – not just speech.  We also discovered that he had failed his newborn hearing screening so the first thing they did was check his hearing.  Turned out just fine – but we didn’t know that he had failed until he was 18 months old.  Scary if he had been deaf and we didn’t know it.  Actually that happens all the time.  But that is another story!

After we got over the initial idea that people were going to come to our house and help us – we prepared for help.  Looking back now, I don’t think I ever really understood what was happening.  And now that I am in this field and I see families in all stages of acceptance – I can understand why I never understood – there is so much to process at one time and we need to do so many things to make our kid better! When I look back now, I think I would have done some things differently but whatever I did worked out great so I have no complaints!

I did not overwhelm myself with facts or the latest studies about Autism – there was plenty in the media at that time and every kind person I knew was sending me newspaper clippings and magazine references – google didn’t exist like it is today. I didn’t bother reading the books suggested to me – I just tried to do everything the therapists asked me to do.  We started with sign language and it took him about 3 seconds to learn the signs he wanted to use.  We continued to sign until he left the program and our second son who had speech and language delays took it up.  We used sign until Dean started talking. Then he was much more interested in the efficiency of speech and less interested in working on his fine motor skills by signing.

At one point, our developmental specialist asked us about where we thought Dean’s Autism came from.  We had the usual questions about the pregnancy – it was difficult, Artificial Insemination, Gestational Diabetes, meconium in the delivery room – all that.  It left room for questions like  if we had caused the issues – did my partner’s anti depressant cause these issues.  Again, was there something we did to cause the problem?  This was a very popular topic with all the notions that vaccines caused Autism.

After I thought about it for NO TIME, when the question was posed to me – on the spot I said – I don’t really care where it came from – what do we do now?  I never looked back. That’s not to say I didn’t have any feelings about his diagnosis or how many there were or how it is still an everyday activity in my house.  But from that moment on – I have been focused on what we can do to help or support him now and not look for a place to blame or a cause.  That just doesn’t matter.  Dean is now 12 and definitely in puberty.  But that is a story for another day!

If you are interested in discussing your experience with me I am available to help you work through your feelings and experiences from the perspective of someone who has been there already – twice . . . . . and now works in the field with many different types of disabilities and many different families. See my contact page for my contact info.


Non verbal and Sign Language

Kids who are non verbal can often learn many basic signs which give them an alternative to using their voice to communicate.  American Sign Language or ASL uses many different aspects of communication through body language, facial expressions and gestures, that allows non verbal kids to give information easily and with less frustration.

Parents are often overwhelmed by the amazing amount of information that is now needed to learn about their child and how to cope with the many different components of having a special needs kiddo.

Communication is essential before we can alter behavior.  If you want to explain why, how, when, what for, etc., to your child – every method of communication is acceptable.  With children that do not have hearing loss, sign language provides an additional modality or form of language that their brain processes differently.  Just another resource for you to try with your kid.

There are many ways to learn sign language in the community and on line.  One of my favorite ways to learn sign is by watching Signing Time!  No other set of videos teaches sign language to parents and Special Needs kids as well as these.   The different series’ cover almost every aspect of daily living and routines.  In my 10 years of working with special needs kids as well as my own kids, sign language has improved all levels of communication.


What helps kids with special needs communicate?

I have two special needs kids  – both with communication issues.  I went through my pediatrician and then Early Intervention Services  in my state.  How did I learn to communicate with my two sons? I learned sign language – American Sign Language  and used it with them.  One of my son’s used it as a transition language and started speaking with no residual capacity to sign or understand sign.  My second son retained the receptive aspect but does not sign.  Both of my sons are in regular classrooms doing extremely well.

Now, I work in Early Intervention  Programs to help families build bridges of communication to and with their special needs children.

I started this blog to find other parents who are using sign to communicate with their special needs kids.