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

05 Oct

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


3 responses to “How do I know if I am doing the right thing for my son?

  1. mmostynthomas

    October 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Hi, I thought I left a comment here but it seems not.

    Anyway, thanks for the linkback to my blog. I can understand your anxiety and would like to reassure you that of course you are, but I’m sure that in your heart of hearts you know it yourself as a caring and loving mum.

    But I’d like to set the record straight if I may. It is a misconception that Auslan, or its British equivalent BSL, or any other national sign language for that matter, is more complex than Makaton. It is actually very, very fluid. In fact, when you first teach a child to sign, you begin with key words like ‘drink’ – and the huge popularity of baby signing proves how possible it is to teach children as young as six months old, way before they develop proper speech.

    At that age, you don’t teach them whole sentences at once – it’s not possible. Instead, they start with simple words and then work their way up at their own pace. That is why Auslan evolves so well with the child, and why it goes beyond school.

    It is also a misconception that you will never see other children signing back to your child unless s/he goes to a deaf school or is in a full signing environment. I could go on a tube anywhere in London with you and point out all the sign language users you would never have noticed, in much the same way as you could identify Australians living in London.

    Sign language is not as visually obvious as you think. Just like spoken English is irrevoccably linked to its national culture, national sign language is entwined with Deaf culture, ensuring linguistic and cultural nuances that are just as subtle. I can say that, because being Deaf I have grown up with sign language for much of my life. You haven’t, so you can’t say for sure if children will never sign back in a non-signing environment; there’s no way you or anyone who isn’t familiar with Auslan can always spot it if you saw it.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you from using Makaton with your little boy. That’s your decision and your choice entirely. I am just against it on principle that it is Deaf sign language mangled by speech therapists who thought they knew better than Deaf people who’d been using it all their lives. The trouble with such therapists is that when they first learnt the national sign language they learnt it in an adult context – ie. in terms of developing signs for whole sentences or phrases and so on – which led them to think that it simply wasn’t possible to use it with children with learning disabilities, motor disability, speech delays and so on.

    They then went and meddled with it by themselves, instead of consulting Deaf linguistic experts who could advise them how to adapt it without losing its cultural and linguistic essence. Then, if the child got to a stage where it was concluded s/he would never gain speech, the transition to full national sign language would be much smoother.

    And if the child does develop speech? Well, the use of Auslan doesn’t have to impair it. I use both basic BSL, PECS and speech with my little girl, who like Harry, is aged three and has CP. She has no speech, but she does try to form words, and can vocalise. My younger child isn’t disabled – he’s hearing – and I use BSL and speech with him. And guess what? His speech development is going just fine. All of which proves what? Why should Isobel or I need Makaton in our lives? It’s unnecessary for us.

    But again, I must stress, whether you want to go with Makaton or not is entirely up to you – and if Harry is happy with it, then you are doing the right thing by him.

  2. Carolyn

    April 17, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    For the most part, I prefer to teach Samara the Auslan form of a word. Most are the same anyway, but why teach her a different form of the word. I understand some words were apparently adapted to be easier to sign, which I guess has its place, but even if a sign was too difficult, Samara has adapted it herself, and as long as we keep using the correct sign, she gets better at it as time goes on. Just like with speech. We don’t have a separate language for little children, but they will come up with their own approximations until they learn to say it correctly.

  3. Maureen Waters

    February 17, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    I think there is a total misunderstanding going on here. Makaton is the sign/symbol communication tool used with people with learning disabilities and special needs. Having worked in this field of caring for over 30 years I can assure anyone that there is no better tool. Makaton revolutionised communication for these people and finally gave them the tool they required to communicate to each other. I am not putting down BSL and never would. This is a fantastic tool when used with the appropriate level of understanding.


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