A Case For Teaching Sign Language To Children Who Have Down Syndrome

If you ask any parent of a child with Down syndrome what their child’s biggest delay is, the answer most often is speech. Expressive language seems to be a near-universal issue for kids with Down syndrome, and their understanding of language far outstrips their ability to express their wants, needs and emotions by the time they are two.

All children are immersed in the language that we speak from the time they come into the world. Kids begin to repeat sounds and words they hear as they are able, and slowly these words become part of their vocabulary as they repeat it over and over. They soon remember how to say the word and understand what it means, by the reactions and repetitions from adults around them. Babies with Down syndrome have low oral motor tone and have a much harder time repeating the sounds and words they hear, and hence are deprived of the feedback loop that strengthens the connections of the words and their meanings in their minds. They also have an intellectual disability, and hence need more repetitions and more time than typical kids to learn something new. Early introduction to sign language can provide valuable language input to children in their formative stages. For instance, my son knows the sign for grass from the signing videos he sees. Every time we go into our yard, or walk in the neighborhood, my son signs “grass” when he sees it. And I say, “Yes Tejas, that is grass, grass is green”, and then he will sign grass, and green. I barely even notice grass when I am out and about, and this is language input I might not think to give him if he did not lead with the sign for grass.

For a child with Down syndrome, sign language can build a child’s early pre-verbal vocabulary and lay the foundation for verbal speech. Many moms report that the first words their children speak are most often words they know and have been signing already. If you speak the word as you sign to the child, and speak the word when your child signs to you, this speech input helps children associate the words with the signs they use. This is not very different from how you would naturally behave around your child, just uses sign language instead of generic hand gestures. Children begin to eventually attempt vocalization along with signing, and once kids master the spoken word and can be understood easily, they drop the sign. Tejas has some approximations for words that start with “b” (B and D are the most common first consonants acquired). He used to pat his thigh and sign dog last year, but this year when he sees a dog, he will simply say “ba ba ba”.

Sign language is highly visual. Our kids are visual learners, and it is easy for them to learn and remember a visual language. Many older (and verbal) kids use alphabet signs to remember their spellings and do great with them!

Tejas signing “Again”

Tejas signing “Again”

We started signing with Tejas when he was about 6 months old, with simple signs like milk, eat, drink and more. He soon began to show us that he understood them, but could not sign back yet. We introduced him to Baby Signing Time videos by Rachel Coleman at one year old. He couldn’t imitate signs yet, but was captivated by the songs and visuals of cute babies and toddlers signing. His first sign was “hat”, next was “dog”, which are pat on the head and thigh respectively, the simplest signs. Practical signs came later and he was  soon able to ask for food, milk, ball, books, more bubbles and baths. Once he made the connection of signs and their meanings, his pace of learning picked up, and he was adding new signs every week. Soon, he knew all hundred signs in the Baby Signing time series. He wanted to learn to sign all the things he saw in his books, and we had to google to learn new signs to keep up with his learning pace. We then transitioned to Signing Time videos, and he is picking up more new signs, for colors, animals, and new verbs. He still has no spoken words, but thanks to sign language, he is able to have a rich conversation with us, not just express his basic needs. He is able to tell us his observations of the world around him, that he sees clouds in the sky from his car seat and purple flowers in the front yard, tells us the color of each car he sees, points out each and every tree in the neighborhood, asks to go outside and water the grass, identifies family members (for his favorite aunt Avi, he signs the “owwie/hurt” sign and points at the Ipad, demanding to see her in Facetime), and signs along with the stories we read to him. Tejas recently had his speech evaluation and once the receptive part of the testing was done, the evaluator said she wouldn’t test him on the expressive language since he has no spoken words. I requested that she test him anyway, and he could answer with sign language. She was blown away by how well he did, and stopped writing down the  list of words he knew, they were so many more than she was expecting for a child who doesn’t speak yet.

A child builds the muscles, coordination, balance and core strength while cruising and using a walker, all skills he/she is able to use to walk independently when he/she is strong enough and ready. Likewise, sign language builds vocabulary, increases language exposure, helps connections between words and meanings, makes you feel understood,  enables communication, all skills that help in developing verbal speech.

In absence of sign language for pre-verbal kids, there would be no way to know what their cognitive abilities are, what they understand about the world around them, what is going on in their minds. We and the world around them would continue to underestimate them and treat them like infants, and nothing drives down achievement like low expectations.

If you are excited at the prospect of signing with your children, but worry that your child’s speech might get more delayed because of using sign language, I want to allay your fears. Your instinct may tell you that if they child has a way to communicate without using words, they might not be motivated to speak at all. But ask yourself, how many kids continue to army crawl after they learn four-point crawling? How many kids continue to crawl after they learn to walk? How many kids continue signing when they can use their voice and be understood? Answer to all the above questions is ZERO.

You don’t have to take my word for it, you can read this research article that reviewed 25 years of research published on the topic and found that “None of the 27 cases demonstrated decreases in speech production as a result of AAC intervention, 11% showed no change, and the majority (89%) demonstrated gains in speech“. Another study taught sign language to typically developing and typically hearing children for two years, and found that they had more cognitive advancement than their peers that weren’t exposed to sign language.

Flick (IG: flicks_on_fleek) signing “Please.”

According to NIH, the first 3 years of life are critical periods for speech and language development in infants and young children when the brain is best able to absorb language. Sign language allows us to immerse them in a language-rich environment in this critical time and give them a jump-start on language and communication for the rest of their lives.

To read more from Sruthi Muralidharan, visit No BS About DS.