Monthly Archives: October 2012

How do I know if I am doing the right thing for my son?

My son Harry will be three years old in January 2013 and doesn’t yet speak.  He can say “Mum” and “Dad”, however they are generally not used in context.  With the exception of those two words, Harry does not have any speech at all.  To the extent that he doesn’t even have any part words or sounds that he uses in place of words.  So, as a means of encouraging and enabling communication, our speech therapist recommended a combination of PECS (picture exchange cards – which we have only recently introduced) and Makaton (key word signing).

ImageSince introducing Makaton signing, Harry has been a different boy.  It was a huge effort to teach him the first few, but once he understood the concept it became a lot easier to teach new signs.  Harry currently knows 17 signs and his frustration at not being able to communicate with us has decreased dramatically, resulting in a much happier little boy.

Makaton is not sign language.  It is “key word signing”, and people who use it sign only the key parts of the question/statement, for example Harry might sign “drink”, whereas a person using sign language would sign the equivalent of what a person would say using words, eg “I want a drink” or “can I have a drink?”.  A person who learns sign language such as Auslan will likely not understand what a person using Makaton is saying/signing.  The intended use for Makaton (which in Australia is now known as Key Word Sign Australia) is to bridge communication while speech is developing.  It is used with children who are expected to, or have a chance of eventually developing speech.  “Real” sign language such as Auslan and their international equivalents are generally taught to children from an early age only if they are deaf or for some other reason unlikely to ever speak.

I recently read (and commented on) a blog discussing an argument about why BSL (the British equivalent Imageof Auslan) should have been used on a children’s television programme rather than Makaton (which is what they have used).  I think it is wonderful that any children’s programme is attempting to accommodate children with special needs by incorporating signing.  Perhaps the argument really shouldn’t be “which form of sign language should be used on a television programme for children”, but rather, is Makaton really more beneficial for children with speech delays than Auslan, and would it be better if only a single form of sign language (eg “real sign language” not Makaton) was taught to children?  Interestingly (and something I have only recently discovered), children who are taught Auslan are likely to have just as many “words”, if not more, than their verbal peers.

For children – while they are still children, Makaton is fine and serves its purpose well.  Unless attending a school for the deaf or other special school where everyone is signing from a young age, your child’s peers are unlikely to sign back or understand any form of signing your child does regardless of whether it is Makaton or Auslan.  Also – Makaton is often used with children who may have more than just speech delays.  It is much less complex than Auslan, and has many benefits for a child that cannot speak and may struggle to learn to sign full sentences due to other difficulties or developmental delays.  In my opinion, in many cases and in particular for children who do end up developing speech at a reasonably young age (eg before age 5), Makaton is probably fine.  However – the problem with this is that no one knows if your child will actually ever develop speech. If a child is taught Makaton at a young age, and after a few years is still no closer to developing speech, they will likely have to learn Auslan anyway – and since the two are not the same it is kind of like being taught French and then being told people won’t understand French so you will now have to learn German. Why can’t children simply be taught key signs from the Auslan vocabulary?

ImageThere are large communities of people (adults) who communicate using sign language, however there are not many who communicate using Makaton.  The fact that people who are deaf or for some other reason not expected to ever speak verbally, are taught Auslan from the outset rather than Makaton shows that in the long term, Auslan is better. Also, the Makaton vocabulary only has about 450 signs, whereas Auslan has thousands of signs and is a complete language rather than just a basic entry-level communication tool.

So now I have been left wondering if I am really doing the right thing for Harry by teaching him Makaton.  Should I instead be teaching him Auslan?  I still have hope that one day he will develop speech, but I don’t want him to be disadvantaged if he doesn’t.  Most parents have times when they worry about what is best for their child, however it is a constant worry for parents of special needs children, and is exacerbated by the constant comments and advice received from specialists with differing views combined with the numerous comments and opinions received from non-specialist, albeit well-meaning, people with no actual experience.

Perhaps I am naive and a little silly for trusting and following what Harry’s specialists tell me – but I thought it was their job to know best.  Having now discovered this argument, I am left feeling upset and a little like I have been kept in the dark.  Oh well, like with everything new that has crossed my path since Harry’s birth nearly three years ago, I will once again reacquaint myself with my good friend Google, and delve into some speech and language research – and will have a chat to Harry’s speech therapist next week!


Posted by on October 5, 2012 in Uncategorized


How embarrassing!!

I recently found myself consoling and counselling a dear friend, after his (second) wife told him she sometimes feels embarrassed when she is out with his 10 year old daughter who has autism spectrum disorder combined with a cognitive delay.  She went on to say that sometimes she wished that his daughter was a “normal” 10 year old. Image

At first I was outraged at the comment, as was my friend.  It made me wonder how many people would feel embarrassed to be out in public with my son – to me, this comment was highly offensive.  However, not wanting to fuel an argument between my friend and his wife, and knowing that she is a lovely lady who would never say anything like that that in malice, I tried to be objective. 

While the statement was without doubt very thoughtless, and regardless of personal experiences most people would know better than to say that to the parent of a special needs child – or to the parent of any child for that matter.  However, that aside, I started to think how “embarrassing” children are, and the difficulties of becoming a stepmother, especially to a child with special needs.

ImageThere are number of experiences involved in being a parent and in particular a mother.  Firstly, there is the birth.  The birth of your baby leaves you with no shame and very little dignity.  These days, if my bosom escaped from my shirt while walking down the street, I would barely bat an eyelid.  As your child grows, the general population will witness you struggling to mitigate tantrums in shopping centres, or watch as you crawl on hands and knees trying to find a dummy (pacifier) or favourite toy that has been thrown under the shelves in the supermarket isle, they will vomit in public places, have accidents where they don’t make it to the toilet in time… the list goes on. 

However, while enduring these acts of “toddlerism”, we are also getting to know our child.  As our little monkeys grow and develop, so does our bond with them.  We become resilient and immune to the embarrassment that our children can sometimes cause, and to an extent, to the stares and “looks of horror” that come our way.  This is the same for most parents, and is not limited to parents of special needs children. 

ImageHowever, if you remember how you felt the first time your child had a real tantrum in a public place, it is perhaps easy to see how a “non-parent” may in fact feel embarrassed when out with a child who is misbehaving, or behaving in a way that attracts attention – bearing in mind that they have not had the “training” that is thrust upon new parents and caregivers, nor have they had the opportunity to develop such a momentous bond with the child – although, that is not to say they can’t, or wont, if given the opportunity.


Posted by on October 1, 2012 in Uncategorized