Down syndrome from a father's perspective.

Sign language is a great choice for any child

Sign language is good for all kids, not just those with Down syndrome

Isn’t it funny how kids will ignore a certain toy and then all of a sudden it seems to become the greatest thing ever! That is how it was with Treyton last night. For some reason he decided that the little blue stuffed bear we bought at the Liberty University bookstore was where it was at. He was carrying it around the living room, tossing it in the air and chasing after it and all the while he was babbling. The best part for me was when he began moving the bears arms and having the bear talk in sign language.

We decided to use sign language because of the Down syndrome diagnosis

Treyton is our fourth child and the first one with whom we used sign language. I had never heard of using sign language for babies before but thankfully my wife is more in tune with such things.  She also understood that the sooner a child could communicate the sooner the child could progress to the next step of intellectual growth. Knowing that Down syndrome can have a significant impact on a child’s cognitive development we wanted to make sure we gave Treyton every opportunity to realize his full potential.

After my experience using signs with Treyton I would encourage every parent to begin using signs as soon as possible regardless of the number of chromosome their child has. It really is amazing how soon babies want to communicate; without sign language you would never know this. A child’s large motor skills develop a lot sooner than their verbal skills develop so using motions to communicate is a perfect match.

This is my favorite sign – Deer

Our process for teaching sign language

If you read “the books,” they will tell you to start using signs as you talk to your baby from the very first day. We did not quite do that but we did dabble with it fairly early. Then when Trey was somewhere around 9 months the two of us went to a class together called “Sign, Say, and Play” that was promoted through the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan. This class used the Baby Signs program so as a result that is the program I have the most familiarity with. The speech therapist did give us some DVD’s produced by Baby Signing Times that we really liked as well. I cannot give the class a lot of credit for teaching Treyton to use signs but it was a lot of fun for him and it did give me a better understanding of how to use both verbal and visual language with Treyton. We are also able to purchase teaching materials at a discounted rate that were very helpful.

Once Leigh Ann and I learned a couple of simple signs like “more” and “eat” we would simply use the signals whenever we spoke those words. We would focus on a couple of words for a week or so and then add another. We tried to be intentional about this but we also have three other kids that kept us very busy so it was never a very intensive thing. However, it really did not take long and Treyton started tapping his fingers together asking for more. At first this sign was used for both eat and more but he was able to communicate with us. After that first sign things rolled right along and we found ourselves continually looking up the sign for different animals, foods, etc. If we could not find a sign for the word we wanted or maybe we simply misplaced the book we would make up our own sign. The key thing I remember from the class that we went to was that as long as we both agree the sign for a particular word could be just about anything; we leaned heavily upon that concept.

Evolution and the importance of context

One of the things I have loved so much about using sign language with Treyton is when he makes up his own signs for things. Don’t get me wrong, there is frustration involved because it can take a while before we are able to connect Treyton’s new sign with what it is directed at. But, once that connection is made it can be a lot of fun. For example, there was a period of time (maybe 2 or 3 weeks) when Treyton would hold his palm horizontal to the ground and curl his pointer finger down. Sometimes he would also do this with an up and down motion. It was obvious to us that this was a deliberate act and that there was something specific he was looking for. Then one day as I was home alone feeding him lunch he made that sign as I put some sauce on his plate that he could dip his nuggets into. Dip. That was his sign for dip/sauce. I finally made the connection. To test my theory I went to the cupboard and got our a bottle of ketchup. When I showed it to him he made the same sign. I showed him a packet of sweet and sour sauce, same sign. I learned then that if I focus on the context we are in when Treyton uses a sign I am unfamiliar with I can usually figure out what he wants to say. It is a very cool experience. I was amazed at how young he was when he started talking with signs.

The thing is, Treyton will change or adjust his signs from time to time. For example, when he learned a sign for “dog” he would pat his leg as you would do when you call a dog. He did this sign very consistently and then over a short period of time he went from patting his leg to his stomach or other convenient place. When we tried to teach Treyton the signs for mom (using an open hand tap your thumb against your chin) and dad (using an open hand tap your thumb against your forehead) he quickly decided that two signs was overkill and used the sign for dad to indicate either mom or dad. Then later, instead tapping his forehead with his thumb that sign evolved into tapping the side of his head with his index finger when he wanted to say mom or dad. I am not sure if you are reading this and think it sounds hard or confusing but it was not. It was a very natural process and one that I would encourage any parent to take.

Using sign language with my son was a great choice no matter what but because he has Down syndrome it was an even more important choice than I had ever realized in the beginning.
Rob Arnold has been married to his high school sweetheart for almost 19 years. Together they have three daughters and one son. He earned his bachelor's degree in General Business from Grand Valley State University as well as an MBA in Strategic Management from Davenport University. He enjoys reading, hunting, scuba diving, and spending time with his family.