January 31, 2012

Communicating through ASL

This has probably been a familiar scene at some point in your home ... your young toddler child is sitting in the middle of the floor throwing a temper tantrum. Tears are streaming down her face, her nose is running and her hair is matted to her face. She's kicking the floor and screaming ... and you have absolutely no idea why. You have tried everything to calm her down and nothing has worked. Age appropriate? Of course. Frustrating for both of you? Definitely. Sometimes there really is no reason for the tantrum ... but maybe sometimes there is?

I think it's safe to say that one of the biggest frustrations for toddler-aged kiddos is lack of communication. Or it's at least been one of the biggest frustrations for Brooklyn since she came home from China last June. I am convinced that since we brought her home at 13 months old, she's known exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it. But given the language barrier, her young age, and her un-repaired cleft lip and palate ... well, there wasn't much communicating happening from her side.

Enter our non-verbal saving grace, American Sign Language (ASL). We had used a few signs with our biological children when they were Brooklyn's age, but mostly because I thought it was cool and seemed like a good thing to do. We didn't actually depend on the signs for communication. But with Brooklyn, signs have pretty much become a way of life. I'm not just talking about the signs for "more" and "all done" ... I'm talking about complete non-verbal communication with ASL. Not full sentences mind you, but "toddler talk" using ASL. At 20 months old, our super-smarty-pants can sign over 40 words and the list keeps growing. She has a better vocabulary than my son did at her age. She can also understand just about everything we say, and thanks to ASL, she can respond appropriately using signs. And although we still have the typical toddler meltdowns, Brooklyn's non-verbal communication skills have drastically cut them down.

It's a long list, but to give you a clear picture of Brooklyn's non-verbal capabilities ... here are the words she can sign and understand: hi/bye, yes/no, milk, bedtime, play, all done, eat, more, help, blanket, bath, come, napkin/tissue, wash, sorry, book, thank you, shoes, socks, car, mommy, daddy, brother, sister, dog, hat, stop, music, clean, diaper, wait, yogurt, baby, scared, ball, up, down, hurt and hair ... there may be more but this is the running list I have. She can point to the body parts on her face and I also have another handful of signs that I am working on teaching her: I love you, coat, happy, train, brush teeth, kiss, want, dance, sit, stand, banana, friend, gentle, outside, cat, color, and TV. And there are countless more I'd like to learn but I try to only introduce a few at a time. She can pick up some immediately after showing her just one time, others take longer. Some signs are used for multiple words, a few are ones that are not actually ASL (just made up over time), and some are Brooklyn's toddler version of the sign. I'm happy to say that ASL has become a routine, necessary, easy part of our life.

Teaching Brooklyn ASL was not always easy though. In fact, the first sign I taught her, "milk," was probably the most difficult. I started signing a few important words when we were in China but didn't really begin trying to teach them to her until we had been home for a few days. Every time we had her milk out to drink, I'd hold it in front of her and sign "milk." I even amazingly got her to imitate me doing it a few times. I did this ... a lot. All the time. Once I knew that she could consistently do the sign AND that she understood what she was doing, I only gave her the milk when she signed for it. There were definitely temper tantrums during this transitional period and it was tough ... a battle of wills on more than one occasion. Two strong-willed ladies both wanting different things made for interesting days. But within 2 weeks of being home, she was comfortably signing "milk" and it was absolutely effortless for her.

I continued to sign other words with her while talking, but didn't intentionally teach them to her for a little while. I wanted to make sure we had "milk" down cold before I slowly started introducing others. When she started to use "milk" for everything, I knew it was time to learn more. It was slow-going at first and certainly an uphill battle on many occasions, but worth every ounce of work. Brooklyn learned a burst of signs in late November/early December when she was 18 months old - she was picking up multiple signs each week! We also noticed a drastic reduction in her temper tantrums around that time. I think that part of it was just being more comfortable with us, but I can also attribute her behavior change to language acquisition.

Using ASL has been really fun for our two biological children as well - they can interpret what Brooklyn is saying for other people who don't understand it and they even help teach her signs! My oldest daughter learns some ASL at school and she is always excited to teach us the new words she has learned. Brooklyn is still pretty non-verbal. She does not say any words, although she makes a few sounds that mimic words and she uses different tones extremely well. Sometimes I know what she wants just by the tone of her sound. She can say "ow" when something hurts and she makes an adorable "hu ha" sound when she wants me to sing to her. She can say "mamamama" but that's more mimicking a sound than an actual word. I expect that her verbal language will start developing when we begin speech therapy after her palate repair on February 21st. I really believe that all children could benefit from using ASL, whether they are speech-delayed or not. Research has even shown that verbal language acquisition is easier for children who know ASL!

Before you ask, no - I am not fluent in ASL and I did not know it before I had children. In fact, I only knew a handful of signs before we brought Brooklyn home. I have learned from a book, videos and yes, I'll say it ... an iPhone app :-) The resource I have leaned on the most is a great book called Teach Your Tot to Sign by Stacy A. Thompson. I have yet to look up a sign that wasn't in the book. I also like the Baby Signing Time videos because they show multiple children doing the signs in their own ways. The iPhone/iPad app that we have is called Baby Sign and Learn - it has digital cartoon-like babies that show the signs. There are many, many more resources out there for parents, theses are just the ones that I am using.

Communication with little ones is always difficult, whether they are biological or adopted. Now that Brooklyn has been home for 8 months, the initial language barrier is not an issue anymore. But there are still times when Brooklyn is passionately signing a word and I have no idea what she's saying. I am so happy though, that she has the skills to be able to effectively communicate what she needs and wants. And if it's something we haven't signed yet, the information is only a book, video, or iPhone app away.


  1. That's so awesome! We used some signs for our daughters {by birth} when they were under one year old and it was fantastic. Our son from Thailand struggled so much with speech when he came home at age 3. He wasn't even speaking Thai...so we knew he would have delays here too. ASL is such a great tool for these kids! I will definitely be looking into that iPhone app! Our newest little guy is only now 11 months old and when we travel for him later this year, I'd love to get started signing with him immediately! Great post! :)

  2. Way to go, Nicole and Brooklyn!

  3. Oh, we LOVE signing with our kiddos. After my second child had some speech delays, we began signing and haven't looked back :) Some of our kids benefited more than others, but everyone learned at least a handful of signs. And for some it can be an invaluable tools during those first months home.
    Thanks so much for sharing, great links, too! Gonna have to check out that iPhone app ;)

  4. I'm always excited when I hear of Mom's like you who "get it" that communication is so important and there are different ways to accomplish this. As the Mom of two adopted deaf son's of course we sign all the time. What many people don't know is that ASL uses the same speech center in the brain that spoken language does. So by getting kids to sign you are really helping them to develop language, and speech will come easier for them when they are able to mange this. Sign language is not a "crutch" as some think, nor will it hinder their wanting to use spoken language. You are exercising and strengthening that language part of the brain, and besides decreasing frustration, you are really helping your girl to get ahead.

  5. I love using signs with our son from China. We've had to adapt them a bit because he doesn't have a left hand, but he blows us away with how quickly he picks up signs. I was just telling my husband that Milo has either come up with his own, or someone else has taught him, new signs as well! Thankfully, our son is quickly picking up our spoken language, but we do still teach him new signs and he continues to supplement his speech with signs. We love it! Thank you for the wonderful post!!

  6. Thanks for the info Nicole! Great post. I am going to try some signs with Judah even though he doesn't have any palate issues. Just because I think it will help him as he learns our language.

  7. Great post Nicole! A friend of mine via blogging is teaching her two recently adopted boys to sign as well, thought you might enjoy her videos. Her blog is http://signstogether.blogspot.com/ and her youtube channel is http://youtu.be/UIPMLM9yuhg.