I Got My Baby Back Because of Sign Language

submitted by Tammy R., West Valley City, Utah

April 2008

Every mother loves watching her child grow and learn new things. As a first-time mom I was no different from all the others. With every day it seemed my baby boy, Benjamin, was just blossoming as an individual. It seemed like one day he was holding his head up on his own and the next he was walking.

I had gotten a book called First Signs when Ben was just a baby and tried to use it often. I had heard that a child as young as six months could communicate through sign language. What a wonderful gift to be able to communicate with your child so young. Ben’s first word, “dog”, was followed by many others up until 16 months. It was around this time that no new words were emerging in his vocabulary. When I expressed some concern to his pediatrician I was told that as a boy and only child it is quite common for a child his age to be a little behind. But then at around 18 months I noticed that words were disappearing from Ben’s vocabulary as well. When I mentioned this to the doctor and others, everyone told me I was just a worried first-time mom, but something inside me said otherwise.

I got rid of the pacifier immediately and even the sippy cup because I had read that sometimes that can impede a child’s speech development, but still no change. Over the next few months I started to notice different things that seemed a little worrisome that others were easily able to rationalize. Ben never seemed to look into my eyes when I was talking to him. I was told he was a normal toddler just curious about the world around him and he wasn’t paying attention to me. When I would talk to other mothers about how much time and attention their children took I joked that Ben only needed me for food and water and a diaper changing here and there. They all thought it was great that he was able to entertain himself so well, but I felt like a failure as a mother. I thought I must be doing something wrong for my child to need me so little. And even though all I wanted to do was hold Ben and cuddle with him he really didn’t want too much of that.

It was around Ben’s second birthday that I realized something was wrong no matter what everyone said. It was at this time that I decided to start testing things out on my own. One day while we were playing downstairs I slowly backed out of Ben’s sight while he played with a toy. “Ben” I called out to my son in a soft whisper. No response. “Ben” I said even louder. Still nothing. I felt my stomach sink. I took a shoe and threw it at the wall. “Bang!” And no response from Ben, he didn’t even flinch. Where was my son? He seemed to be disappearing into a world of his own along with the words that were almost gone now.

I knew I had to do something, so I called an organization called Kids Who Count and told them what was going on. They agreed that Ben should be tested. It was the longest month of my life. We had Ben’s hearing tested again (he passed his infant hearing test) and he had passed. They put Ben into a small booth and had me step outside. The little monkeys in the corner of the booth banged their cymbals and the lights behind them blinked, Ben looked up at them. “Ben,” I called into the microphone. Nothing. “Ben,” I said again. Nothing. Then a train whistle blew through the speaker and Ben looked up. My child responded to a train whistle over the sound of his own mother’s voice. It wasn’t his hearing. What was wrong?

A nurse came to the house the next week and was surprised that I had gotten rid of pacifiers and sippy cups months ago. It definitely wasn’t anything physical affecting his speech. When an occupational therapist and speech therapist came from early intervention to test Ben, it didn’t go very well. They weren’t even really able to assess him properly because he was so unresponsive to them. It was then that they confirmed my fears, something was wrong and Ben should start early intervention immediately. At the time they did not give a diagnosis until the age of 3, but we were pretty sure Ben had autism.

I was scared. I am embarrassed to say that the first thing that popped into my mind was the movie Rainman. Was my son ever going to be happy? Could he live a normal life? One of the first things they told to me do when we started at Kids Who Count was to start using sign language. I went out and bought books on sign language and autism immediately. We started using sign language in our home and in therapy. It was difficult at first because Ben wasn’t very good at making eye contact, but this was one of the reasons signing was so important. It forced him to interact on some level with others. I will never forget the first time Ben signed “more”. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Two months after we started therapy, Ben signed “mommy” for the first time. It was the first time my child had called me mommy. I cried that night.

I began to think that maybe it wasn’t something I was doing wrong, that maybe I could even help my son. Ben struggled with the signing at first, but then he came around. It was amazing to finally be able to communicate with my child. Since we were using sign language with Ben we decided to use it with our second son, Joshua, who started started signing at six months. I had always thought that people signing was beautiful to watch, but I never really thought about what a gift it was. To be able to communicate is so vital to the way we connect with one another. Without sign language, I wouldn’t have gotten my baby back. I really think that the eye contact you make while signing is what brought Ben back to us…and I am forever grateful.