Parenting Through Sign Language

June 2008

by Steve H. from Florence, MA

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably had an extraordinary life. I know I have. I’ve had a great number of blessings thrown at me over the years, one of the greatest being my daughter Alice, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Growing up, my family was very supportive of learning through whatever means worked. For me, I learned best from doing or making things. I developed a keen interest in science in particular, but always loved the process of learning. That love lives on and I don’t see it waning. I discovered computer programming when I was fairly young and threw myself into it because of the power of the languages that were used. By putting small pieces together, I learned to build new things that did even more – all through language. In that, a new love was born: languages. In college, I had several friends who had taken some sign language classes and I was introduced to it, picking up the manual alphabet and a few choice phrases, most of which included the sign for ‘lobotomy’.

Flash forward 15 years. My daughter Alice was born. She came with Down syndrome, a heart defect, pneumonia and a stroke. I was devastated and spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with the circumstances. I had been ready for fatherhood, but had never expected that I would have to step up to be the father of a child with special needs. Alice’s mom, Evie, and I tried to learn everything that we could about Down syndrome and worked hard with the Early Intervention staff to try to give Alice a leg up. We knew that there were certain trends in Down syndrome that we would have to watch as they were revealed so we could react as best as possible. Ultimately, we decided that we would work through her greatest weaknesses and her greatest strengths as much as possible. We were completely surprised when, in spite of everything that we read as trends, Alice began to talk. Her first word was ‘up’ and it came in fairly early. We focused on that and got a speech therapist in the picture as soon as possible. She brought us the first two Signing Time videos and we sat with Alice daily working on her weak muscles and watching Signing Time. Over time it became clear that Alice had two strengths in her favor: language and attention span. Alice ate up as much sign language as we could feed her, and it was such a relief to see her communicating and using a vocabulary that was age-appropriate for any child.

I mentioned that Alice is a blessing. This is true. She is one of the kindest, sweetest, people that I’ve met. She is very social and loves meeting and talking to new people. I’ve found consistently that when I’m sad, I can look to her and be healed. This came together one morning at breakfast when she was about 20 months old. Alice reported through sign that her uncle and a pig were in the back yard. Really, now? Apparently in her imagination, this was the case. For me, this was the tripping point for the importance of language and in her case the importance of sign language. She was able to create an idea in her head and find a way to convey that idea to me without any element of the idea present, and I was able to understand her and react and respond. Signing has been such an important tool for her and for us. When the day came that she signed something that I didn’t understand, I was in a panic since I had not kept up with her vocabulary. Upon reflection, this is exactly where I wanted to be one day. My daughter had learned more than me. I hope that it keeps happening.

I don’t know how to fully explain how everything has coalesced, other than to say that I feel like Alice challenges my abilities. It like she’s said, “OK Dad – you think you’re a hot shot? Well, you’re going to have to pull from everything that you’ve ever learned in some measure and things you’ve never thought of before and put it all together for me.” I never expected that I would have to learn about all the current techniques for heart repair. I never expected that I would have to apply study of gross motor control and proprioceptive sensation. I never expected that I would have to learn my fourth language.  I do this and do it willingly because she gives me the greatest reward I could imagine: her love, given freely and without limit.

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