I first heard of Makaton when my son was just a few weeks old – Michael has Rubinstein Taybi Syndrome, ASD and is non verbal – (my husband who is not great with names insisted in calling it ‘Maconker’ for ages!). All I knew then was it was a form of signing that might help my son if he did not manage to talk. A bit like British Sign Language I was told – I watched the bottom right corner of the BBC news for tips and thought – okay, this might be hard, but will give it a good try!
I began by meeting Dave Benson Phillips (via video sadly not in the flesh!- yet) and sat glued to the TV watching intently what it was he was doing – Michael loved the Nursery Rhymes too, which was a bonus. Although he did like to rewind particular bits over and over again – I could sign 5 fat sausages in no time, as this was his particular favourite!
As a toddler Michael babbled and squealed away to himself, but would get very frustrated when we did not ‘get’ what he wanted or what he was trying to say. Understandably his behaviour became a bit of a problem – he would hit out, throw things and try to wreck the house at times. He was so frustrated. He had speech therapy – although not nearly enough, and Portage was fab, but his frustrations were growing. He still was not talking and although we knew he understood a lot of what we said to him he had real trouble making us understand what he was trying to say – communication was a major difficulty for him.
My Makaton journey began in earnest when Michael started school. His school used it as a matter of course in line with their total communication approach, and after a term or so he would come home and try to form his hands into funny shapes and get even more cross and annoyed when we did not know what he was trying to say! He was choosing to sign Makaton, so we needed to up our game.
Michael's first sign was ‘please’ – great, we thought, but it turned out not to be when he ‘please’ ‘please’ ‘pleased’ for everything and we still did not know what he was asking for – we needed signs for everyday things, things that motivated him to communicate with us.
We tried photographs and objects of reference to help ease his frustration but he did not always have the patience to wait until we or he found the right pictures or items – signing was more immediate.
I asked at school for some clues. I asked the speech therapist – no-one was running workshops. ‘Where’s the consistent approach in this?’ I thought – Michael was learning how to use sign to communicate in school but no-one was showing us, his parents, how to sign too! I had to be proactive and find someone to teach me how to sign. Once school did a short session of Christmas carols – which was great but not good for everyday circumstances and matters of toileting urgency!
At that time Makaton tutors were few and far between and so I spread my search wider and eventually after years of looking and relying on Dave Benson Phillips – I found a Makaton workshop for professionals to be run a few miles away from home. I signed up (pardon the pun!) and Foundation Workshop over 2 days. At last I had a bit of an idea about how to do this properly and had some useful vocabulary for everyday needs, and not just for Christmas!
Shona is North East Parent Adviser for Contact and a Makaton Regional Tutor. This article first appeared in Cerebra News.