This is Evie. She's 8 years old, and has Down's syndrome and sensory processing disorder.
Evie’s speech and language are developmentally delayed. No surprise there. What I didn’t realise is the benefit Makaton signing would have on our lives.
Now I’m not just talking about with Evie either. I sign all the time and don’t even realise. It’s particularly useful when I don’t want to shout across the room that I’m popping to the loo.
When Evie was born and her hearing was found to be good, I thought that Makaton signing wouldn’t be necessary for Evie. I thought that her speech and communication would naturally develop. What I didn’t realise at first is that Makaton is a brilliant tool to those natural steps. We for a long time, struggled with a few signs taught to us by our SALT.
I will never forget the first time that Evie communicated with us. It wasn't a sign but a game of "Round and round the garden". Her SALT drew the circle on her hand and sang to her...Evie reached out her hand to ask for the game again. Such a small step but it was incredibly beautiful to see. Her SALT explained the benefit of signing for Evie and we trusted her.
Then we were given the opportunity to attend on a two day Makaton course with two of her nursery staff. It was the best course we’ve ever done. In 2 days we were fairly proficient in hundreds of signs. We even got a certificate!
Makaton is surprisingly simple. So many of the signs are common sense. I've always talked with my hands; as a child I couldn't talk if someone held my hands, it left me unable to express myself. This was a useful tool for me.
We slowly began to use them. It sounds silly but we were self conscious at first, people did stare as we signed. To be honest they still do.
But it was a game changer. We started with a few signs and began slowly to build and introduce new signs as Evie mastered them. Within 3 months Evie was signing beautifully. Her frustration at being unable to communicate stopped. In turn her spoken words increased. Interestingly her first signs were milk, chocolate and cake. Not a reflection of her interests at all!
It truly was an incredible feat. To watch a pretty much non verbal child change into a signing demon and then talking!
This was over five years ago. And we still sign with Evie. Evie’s speech is indistinct on occasion, particularly when tired. I hadn’t fully appreciated that for years we were the only ones who understood Evie’s speech. I understood her so assumed everyone else would. They didn’t. It’s only now aged 8 that strangers mainly understand her speech.
So why do we continue to sign?
Habit partially but it’s also a conscious effort. Signing helps to reinforce what I’m saying. It makes her look and concentrate. Brilliant for those behavioural moments. It also helps with sentence structure. Evie talks very quickly (like her mum). Makaton signing helps to slow her (and me) down.
I’ll be honest…for any parent whose child has communication issues do learn Makaton. Encourage your child’s teachers and your family members to learn it too. I didn’t think we needed to. For years I doubted the merit. In a matter of weeks I was proved wrong. I would have made more of a conscious effort to learn it earlier. It wasn’t that we avoided it, we just didn’t ‘get’ it.
I now watch Evie signing and talking away. I see her engaging with Mr Tumble (Justin Fletcher is a God in this house). She signs when people can’t understand her speech. She takes the lead.
If you ever have any doubts, please be assured that it really does work. Children with Down’s syndrome tend to be strong visual learners. So signing embraces that strength as do PECS and flashcards.
Communication is the key to reducing frustration, to opening doors.