It was obvious from the beginning that my baby son had communication difficulties. It wasn’t until he was almost 4 years old that he began to speak, and when he did, he had a complete vocabulary. I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the shock! He literally just began talking one day at the park, and never stopped.
If I’d known anything about signing back then, I would certainly have given it a go. But my wife did in her first marriage. By coincidence, her son also had an ASD, which she realised when he was very young. Signing really worked well for them both, and according to what I’ve read, for many other parents of children with all sorts of conditions, too.
But of course, any baby benefits from signing. It was back in the 1970s that scientists realised just how smart babies really are, when it comes to communication. Although most tots begin speaking sometime around 12 months plus, the babies of deaf parents were learning sign language anytime around 6-9 months old. It seems absolutely unbelievable that a little tiny of that age could begin to learn signing, but they did, and that’s how baby signing began.
And it seems there’s no age too young to begin teaching signing. It’s true that baby won’t have the ability to respond in the early days, but the repetition really helps him get familiar with the signs, and with the sounds you make when you’re signing. The key age, though, is around 8-9 months old, when babies are naturally learning gestures of their own. That’s when it all begins to stick and baby learns how to communicate his needs and wants without needing to wail, for the very first time. Now that really does sound like a good reason to learn signing!
To get started, it all seems pretty straightforward. Choose a system you like (there’s a few around), and decide if you’re going to a class, or if you’re doing it yourself. Then it’s all about repetition. Pick a few key words (apparently 5 words/signs is a good number), and just keep repeating them to baby until he responds. When you’ve both mastered those, move on!
I’ve also read a fair bit on the supposed additional benefits of signing. All sorts of claims are made for better bonding, improved language skills and much more, but the researchers and paediatricians tend to shy from all that.
Instead, they emphasise something simpler, which personally I really like – signing just makes life much nicer for our babies. They can express their wants and needs, and we both have the pleasure of interacting in a meaningful way, a long time before baby can speak. Well I’m sold. If it’s good for baby, it’s good for me.