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).
Since 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 of 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?
There 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!