(SAVANNAH, GA) The amount of information that children with Down syndrome understand
far exceeds what they are able to communicate in their early years.
Most kids with Down syndrome have speech delays, and quite often their
expressive language is slower to develop than their receptive
language. This can cause a lot of frustration for children and their
parents, as the kids cannot communicate as effectively as they’d like.
As a tool, speech therapists actively encourage the use of sign
language in the early years, along with traditional speech therapies,
to help to bridge the gap between a child’s receptive and expressive
language abilities. This keeps a positive line of communication open
between the child and parent despite challenges.
“I would say that teaching signs to your baby with Down syndrome
is a must,” says Candy Bogardus of Lowcountry Down Syndrome
Society. Candy has been using sign language with her five year old
daughter Lainey who has Down syndrome since she was just seven months
“It is difficult to decipher the needs of any child at times,
but when a child has no words to tell you her needs it can be
extremely frustrating,” says Candy. “Lainey’s quick
learning of sign language helped eliminate this frustration.”
According to Candy, Lainey did not speak with words until she was four
years old however was using over 75 signs by the time she started
talking. Lainey learned signs so quickly in fact that it was a
challenge for her twin older brothers and other family and friends to
keep up at times.
Cognitive development and confidence are facilitated and enhanced in
children by the use of signing. This is done through the process of
affirming that what the child is thinking and expressing through signs
is indeed correct. For example, if the child signs "hear train" to his
mother, his mother is able to then respond by saying and signing "yes,
mommy hears the train" or "no, mommy hears a truck."
In the past there has been some debate on the topic of signing and
Down syndrome. Some have suggested that the use of signing may
discourage the child’s continued development and improvement of
speech due to fears that they may lean on this form of communication
Recent data however has shown that these fears are unfounded. In fact,
the opposite is actually true. It seems that signing may in fact help
to promote speech.
A case study by Theresa Kouri of the School of Speech Pathology and
Audiology at Kent State University in Ohio actually found that signing
has a positive influence on the development of spoken language in
babies and children with Down syndrome.
In the published article “How Manual Sign Acquisition Relates to
the Development of Spoken Language: A Case Study” the
relationship between signed and spoken word was observed in a young
girl with Down syndrome during a treatment regimen using simultaneous
During the course of the study all of the child’s words were
recorded over an 8-month period and classified according to the manner
of speech and communication production (such as spontaneous/imitated
and signed and/or spoken). It was revealed that most of the words that
the young girl initially signed were later spontaneously spoken.
The study demonstrated that over time most of the young girl’s
signs actually evolved into spontaneous speech. Thus it was concluded
that the use of simultaneous signs does indeed support the formation
of spoken language.
As for Lainey, she is a now a chatterbox. “She still signs
words while she is speaking,” Candy says, “she
definitely figured out the relationship between the spoken word and
the signed word.”
According to Candy the use of sign language has been a huge confidence
and self-esteem builder for Lainey. “Without signs she would
have been left out of playing with her friends and unable to
participate in her daily activities.”
Lainey participates in a program at their church called Cubbies that
involves learning and reciting bible versus each week to her teachers
and peers. Before she was able to speak her mother Candy would teach
her how to sign each verse. “She was able to keep up with her
peers and receive awards for her memorization,” Candy points
out. “Without signs she would have been unable to participate
in this program.”
All parents can agree that there is no greater joy than the feeling
experienced when their child begins to communicate with them. Signing,
used as an initial method of expressive communication, can give the
child the opportunity to achieve the cognitive growth that speech
promotes before the child has the ability to speak. This creates a
clear channel for bonding with people and relating to the world around
them—and is enriching for both the child and parent alike.
Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society promotes the use of sign language.
They have several volumes of DVD’s within their library called
“Signing Times” which can assist children and parents in
learning sign language. They also recommend that children work with
trained speech therapists as well to ensure success.
LDSS is a family support group for those touched by Down syndrome and
their families. LDSS is active in raising awareness within the
community through local leadership, support, outreach, education and
advocacy. (912) 728-8505 http://www.ldssga.org.
By Leigh Donovan