Makaton - a lifetime game of charades 

7 February 2020  |  Tamsin Kingsley

Izzy: Mama, mama! *puts her hands on top of her head like ears*

Me: Er, donkey? I can’t see a donkey....

Izzy: naaaa *shakes head, signs music and then hands on head again*

Me: Um, rabbit? You want to sing sleeping bunnies? 

Izzy (getting cross): naaaaa *shakes head, emphasises hands on head*

Lauren: She wants Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. 

Izzy (excited): eh! eh! *nods*

Me: *Face palm!*

Me: *Remembers that 2 year olds don’t get that you only sing Christmas songs one month of the year* ...Rudolph the red nosed reindeer...

 

Much of my life is spent playing charades in this way, and frustratingly, with all my Makaton training, it is very often Lauren who knows what Izzy wants. Maybe it’s a sister thing, maybe it’s a preschooler thing, who knows. But despite the frustration with translation, it makes me so happy that Izzy can now tell us what she wants by signing.

Makaton - a lifetime game of charades 

Before Christmas Dan did his advanced Makaton training, and was surprised at the blank looks he got from friends and colleagues when he explained where he’d been. When you become immersed in a new world of all things disability related, it can be a shock to realise how different your life has become to before and to that of your friends. So Dan has asked me to do a blog about Makaton signing, which has become a huge part of our life, as Izzy’s primary form of communication. Having seen the difference it has made to her life it has become something I’m quite passionate about. 

Before I had Izzy the closest I came to knowing about Makaton was having heard of baby signing and ‘sing and sign’ classes. As far as I could tell they seemed to involve a lot of brain power in learning a load of signs which could help your child in the few months between wanting to communicate and being able to speak clearly. Suffice to say, I never bothered with Lauren and whilst we did have a few frustrating months of unclear speech, she quickly became a confident and understandable talker, and I never felt she’d missed out. 

When I had Izzy, we received a huge amount of support from our paediatrician and Sunshine and Smiles, as well as speech and language therapists, and one thing that cropped up time and time again was the idea of learning Makaton to support Izzy’s communication. I started with Makaton signing for babies, and then moved on to a beginners and follow up course. Both our parents also attended the beginners course. It was from these courses I learnt all the whats, how and whys of Makaton.

 

So what is Makaton

Well firstly, what Makaton isn’t. Makaton is not ‘Sign Language’. It is not the same as British Sign Language, which has it’s own sentence structure, syntax and uses a lot of finger signing. BSL is primarily used by the deaf and hard of hearing community, in place of speech.

Secondly, Makaton isn’t baby signing. Courses such as ‘sing and sign’ do use some makaton signs, along with other signs (either from other systems or made up) to provide a fun musical class that does help babies to communicate as they transition to talking. 

Makaton is a system of signing used as a communication aid alongside spoken English, to help those with speech or developmental delays to communicate. Usually (but not always) these individuals progress towards speech and eventually drop the signing. A common misconception is that using sign will slow speech development as there’s less need to try to talk, but the research actually shows the opposite (can provide links if anyone is interested). 

With Makaton you always say the words that you are signing (never only sign) and you can choose to sign at different levels, depending on the understanding of those you are signing to- from key words of the sentence to every word. If your child signs back, however inaccurately, you praise but reinforce the correct sign by signing it back to them. 

We’ve found it incredible to see Izzy respond to the signing. We probably started signing to her when she was just over one, once all the hospital drama was over. Initially it is hard to remember to do it, as well as remember the signs, especially because you’re not getting anything back. But before too long she learnt her first signs and eventually started using them to tell us what she wanted. It’s been a slow process but she has built up a huge vocabulary of signs, greatly helped by Mr Tumble and Singing Hands. I can’t imagine life without it, particularly how frustrated she would be, as she is a very determined young lady who knows what she wants. This week my mum took her to the park and after a good amount of play she led my mum over to a bench, climbed on, sat down and signed ‘food’. 

For us it has been such a help, and has given Izzy a voice, which in turn has helped other areas of development as she has been able to ask for things and be understood. No one can be sure at an early age if it’s something that will help their child, but I think if there’s a chance it will, it’s worth a shot. It’s been so fun for me to learn, and helped me feel I was doing something to help her. And I wouldn’t restrict it to children with delays either, I know quite a few neurotypical children who have enjoyed signing, and some for whom speaking came a bit later making it a useful aid. 

One thing I would say is that from what I’ve seen among other families, if the parents don’t get fully behind it, it’s a lot less likely that the child will start signing and benefit from it. If you’re going to do it, try and make it a part of your everyday life. And yet it’s as much down to the child as the parents too. The parents can sign all day long but sometimes the child just isn’t interested. Maybe they would rather start to make an attempt at speech, or maybe they are focussing on physical development at that point rather than communication. And of course some children have more severe delays or health issues (such as visual impairments) that make in not helpful to use. 

Izzy’s speech has been slow in coming, although her ‘mama’ is very clear, accompanied by a firm hand on each side of my face if I don’t take notice. At a recent appointment with our paediatrician I was shocked when he told me that Izzy may never speak, and could rely on Makaton for the rest of her life. Of course this is wild speculation, and most children with Down Syndrome do develop speech, but he is right that it is a possibility. I am so thankful that Dan has been totally on board with the signing, especially once he saw how it was helping her. Both our parents and other family members have done the Makaton training, and my good friend Emily has been learning Makaton with her daughter (and Izzy’s friend) to help them communicate with her. I love it when people ask me how to sign something to Izzy, or what she is signing

to them, and we are so lucky to have so many family and friends on board. But I can’t say it doesn’t worry me a bit that the number of people who understand her is so low (compared to how many people understand spoken English). On a side note, if you ever are interested in learning a few signs please just let me know. You might find it more fun than you think! 

Emily recently witnessed a hilarious argument between Lauren and Izzy in Makaton:

 

Lauren (to me): when my friends go, can I watch Peppa Pig?

Me: No, Izzy has already asked for Mr Tumble.

Lauren (to Izzy, speaking and signing): Izzy, do you want to watch Peppa Pig?

Izzy (signing): no, Mr Tumble!

Lauren (stamping her foot): grrr

 

Wouldn’t it be great if Izzy could start having conversations not only with her close family but with her friends too. Every day we witness what a high level of understanding she has, but it must be so frustrating not to be able to verbalise what you want to say. However much she understands, it’s going to be hard work getting by in life without a language that others understand. I would love for that to be spoken English, and deep down believe that this will come for Izzy eventually. But it’s looking like the ‘meantime’ could be quite a long time for her, so there might be a few more games of charades in store for us yet! 

Tamsin Kingsley

Tamsin Kingsley

I am a 30 year old living in Leeds with my husband and two children. I am a full time mum and carer to Lauren, 4 years and typical, and Izzy, 2.5 years with Down's Syndrome. Izzy has complex health needs mostly due to her low muscle tone, and struggles with feeding and breathing, resulting in tons of appointments and hospital admissions. Both children are happy and full of life, and our family all love each other very much.

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