Talking, communication, gesturing, social interaction; all of them skills that come very easy to us and something that we all take for granted. But for Bruiser my youngest son, this has proved to be something of a challenge.
These difficulties didn’t take us completely by surprise however as Bruiser had a very difficult start in life. He was born very premature and suffered with various complications. We were advised he would encounter a lot of difficulties in his life most likely in the form of cerebral palsy and severe learning difficulties. Bruiser proved his Doctors and Consultants wrong though. Physically he hit all his milestones and although he seemed ‘odd / different’ to us at times he developed what we can only describe as normally.
Bruiser took a while but eventually started babbling when he was eleven months old. We along with his health professionals just put the delay down to his prematurity. Just after his 1st birthday, he said his first word. The words and sounds then came thick and fast and by the time he was fifteen months he could say ‘mam mam’ for mummy, ‘tsir’ for t-shirt, ‘bable’ for table and what was our favourite, ‘ibib ibi’ for iggle piggle to name just a few. In total he had a vocabulary of about 50+ words. He even knew the colours on the bottom of the sky menu which he obsessed over and would repeatedly say, boo (blue) bee (green) ded (red) eya (yellow) EVERYTIME the menu was on.
Then one day along with some of his physical abilities it all stopped… no words, no babbling, no sounds, nothing. Just nothing. It was like he suddenly just didn’t know how anymore. All he did was cry and scream. A LOT. He couldn’t communicate with us and he didn’t appear to understand us. Looking back now I know this was profound frustration with his sudden inability to communicate.
After numerous consultations with his paediatrician (thank fully because he was in the system due to his prematurity, we had someone to go to), he was referred to a Speech and Language Therapist (SALT) and also to the Community paediatricians as together with other behavioural problems that were starting to become very evident, it was believed he might be autistic.
Bruiser was on the waiting list almost a year before we got an appointment with a SALT. That was the longest most frustrating period of our lives and something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Bruiser couldn’t communicate and although we soon figured out he could understand us when we used visual clues ie pictures and physically showing him; he couldn’t tell us anything. He couldn’t even gesture. Every time he wanted something it was a process of elimination that got him what he finally wanted, if indeed we figured it out at all. It was awful. They say that parents know their children and their needs instinctively, but we didn’t, we couldn’t and I will tell you now, it’s absolutely heart wrenching.
A friend suggested one day that we try Makaton to help Bruiser interact and communicate. He already watched ‘something Special’ and tried to copy the signs so, I borrowed her books for a short time. Because we didn’t really ‘get it’ or know how to sign as such, disappointingly we never got off the ground with it. It was on one of the very initial appointments with Bruisers Speech and Language Therapist at our home (he was almost two and a half now), that she noticed how involved and interactive Bruiser was with the Something Special programme and in particular Mr Tumble. She decided there and then to try using Makaton as a form of communication.
I will admit that we were very hesitant to give it a go. We wanted our son to talk and we were of the opinion that he never would if he learnt to use sign language. The speech therapist though understood our concerns and immediately put them to rest. She made us understand that Bruiser may never talk again or at least for a long time. So we had to find a way for him to communicate, even at a very basic level to ease his frustration. She showed us how to use some basic signs over the course of several weeks and explained that we use the ones that will get him his needs and wants met first and foremost and see how we get on.
It wasnt easy by any stretch of the imagination, it was bloody hard work if im completely honest. We needed patience in bucket loads. Although he tried to copy the signs he saw on TV, we struggled to get him to give us any eye contact at all or even look at our hands to sign with him. In the end, we took the approach of sitting across from each other and we did role play while he played nearby. We kept it simple, one of us would sign and say ‘chocolate’ the other gave the chocolate. Chocolate is Bruisers vice, always has been, so we knew this would grab his attention, and that it did! He started watching us, watching our hands. It didn’t take him long to grasp that our little ‘hand movements’ got us chocolate. That was it, we had his attention and he wanted to have a go again and again and again. Because he struggled with his fine motor skills and refused to look at us, we helped Bruiser initially (when he allowed it) and we slowly guided his hands and asked for things like a drink, chocolate, car, food.
I will never forget the look on his little face when he started to realise that we understood him, instead of the frustrated ‘I’m going to scream really loud now’ look that we had come accustomed to. He smiled the biggest happiest smile that lit the whole room.
A whole new world had suddenly opened up for us all and most importantly Bruiser. On a very basic level, he could now tell us he wanted a drink or something to eat, he could ask for a toy car, chocolate, eventually something on TV. He could even tell us he wanted a bath…
and a rocket on bonfire night…
He would point to the colours on the bottom of the Sky menu as before but this time instead of the silence waiting for us to tell him the colour, he would sign the colours repeatedly again and again.
The earliest signs we taught him were simple ones that’s didn’t require a great deal of skill on Bruisers part; drink, eat, car, ball, bath, chocolate, cake, then as his confidence and ability grew so did his need to learn and know more and more. His SALT loved working with him and coming to visit him, she even commented once that he was one of the most proficient signing children she had worked with. Now the foundations were in place we used SALT strategies to further his communication for example Match and Stretch, all the time using Makaton while talking.
A good six to eight months into using Makaton, his verbal communication started to re-emerge. He started to make sounds again, babbling to start with. Then the same sounds with the same signs again and again. He was associating the signs with sounds. Words albeit not very clear ones then began to come again thick and fast.
(This little video captured some of Bruiser’s early signing and words. If you can see past Wriggler flexing his pecs, Bruiser is in the background watching Something Special.)
It wasnt just Bruiser that was learning Makaton. Me, Hubby and big Brother Wriggler could all now do the basic signs to communicate meaningfully and effectively with him. Life was suddenly no longer as frustrating for any of us. It was happier. We were all happier.
Over the last two years, I have been on the Makaton beginners workshop and also the Enhancement training to further increase our ‘signabulary‘. This gave us the opportunity to take our communication with Bruiser to a whole new level. I was no longer just signing singular words, but several key words in a whole sentence but even by this point, I was still playing catch up with Bruiser. He signed instinctively for everything and it had become second nature to him. It was his first language.
Bruiser’s understanding was tested one particular day. His Daddy signed to him (without speaking) ‘Daddy going shops. Bruiser come? Buy sweets‘. Bruiser shot out of the room screaming and signing yes and came back with his shoes and coat :-D
Makaton has given Bruiser confidence. Confidence to communicate, confidence interact and confidence to be himself. When he meets someone new his initial reaction is to put his head down and turn away or just completely ignore them altogether. However, when he realises they can sign he wants to interact with them and on some level he comes across as sociable. This was particularly evident one day when he met his Communication and Interaction worker for the first time at a special stay and play session. (this was before my Makaton training). She is in fact a regional Makaton tutor. She knew so many more signs than we did at the time. Bruiser was feeding off her, taking in all the new signs and using them with her in context. On a few occasions that he met her again he would get very excited and sign to tell us it was the signing lady :-) When she started working with Bruiser in his nursery setting, she showed him some signs to We’re going On A Bear Hunt, one of his favourite books. He loves to share a book and now he could interact with one too.
He comes home from school now and before his coat and shoes are even off he’s telling us what he wants to do.
Makaton has brought Bruiser out of his quiet, frustrating, shell of a world to an interactive communicative environment. I know he is happy now, because he smiles a lot more and he signs to tell us that he’s happy all the time.
Seeing the difference Makaton has made to all our lives has made us realise how important communication is; something that we had never fully appreciated, something we had all previously taken for granted. It actually makes me quite emotional when I talk about the change Makaton has made to our lives. Its has changed all of our lives, for the better and forever. But first and foremost, Makaton has given my son a voice.
For any help or advice in respect of Makaton, please contact the Makaton Charity directly. They are an amazing charity and always willing to help in any way they can. You can also tweet with them here too.