Speaking of the signs


Many years ago, our youngest reached his third birthday without speaking a word. Experts weighed in and medical assessments were done. The prognoses ranged from the concerning to the breathtakingly frightening. After much failed effort to help him find his voice, a young, creative speech pathologist suggested that we attempt to teach him sign language.

Almost immediately, our other son, who is four-and-a-half years older than his brother and who deeply desired to “speak” with him, went to the family computer. In the hunt-and-peck style that is a hallmark of a 7-year-old, he prodded the device into displaying a modicum of simple gestures that we could, in a sincere if amateurish way, attempt to share with the fledgling communicator.

To our great delight, the toddler took to signing, well, like a duck takes to water. He immediately learned word and symbol after word and symbol. Also immediately he found that humor and goodwill lived in his tiny fingers and that his Dad generated delight with mistaken gestures, often  urging him to “play with his food and eat all of his toys.” Each day brought new understanding of the power of language to communicate, entertain and connect. With his brother at his side, they would roll with laughter over an intentionally misdirected sign. As parents, we were overjoyed that our little boy’s limitation proved mechanical and not cognitive; and we committed to live our lives exactly the same only slightly differently.

With continued work and the passage of time, the youngster eventually started forming simple sounds to pair with his signs. Ultimately, his brain forged a path to his mouth and the spoken words came. No one knows why, and now I’m not sure I care. But I did learn to listen to my kids. What they say matters. It connects us. And, I cherish it.

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