Friday, April 4, 2014

I've Fallen Down the Deafblind Rabbit Hole: Tactile Sign Language

Orion put his occupational therapist's hands on his face after school one day.
I've fallen into the rabbit hole of various communication forms for Deafblind kids and did not leave a stone unturned since my son, Orion, was born 3 1/2 years ago.  Well, maybe not the rocks of Deafblind Communicator (he could use this one day) and speech output devices (not tactually accessible, therefore he will not use it).  So, the one communication mode for the sake of discussion here I picked is tactile sign language.   I am especially interested in this because Orion's family members are visual sign language users.  

When Orion was a wee baby, I wondered just how does a Deafblind baby grow up into a tactile signing Deafblind adult?  He's not going to put his hands on my signing hands as a little baby.  Because of that, my husband and I just followed our intuition and signed onto his body.  Go to him.  It turned out that "signing on the body" actually under the umbrella of tactile communication along with very similar mode of touch cues.

Orion currently uses (receptively) touch cues/signs on his body; object cues; tactile symbols; and tactile sign language. Expressively he is signing gibberish, although they're the same familiar-to-us movements and intentional, but some signs come out pretty clear in intent.  

Some examples are: food/eat, bread, more, want.  He will press his open hands down on his chest if he wants something.  What works is that I know he wants something without him going as far as crying; the next thing is to find out what it is he wants. When he puts his hands together, as if in prayer, he's asking for several possible things: sandwich, cracker, or more (of whatever he was just having).

The more we try to tactile sign with Orion, the more interested he seemed.  He would put his hands on ours, or around a finger more than he has done in the past.  Concepts are one thing to wonder about but he is fascinated by our hand movements.  He would sign-babble a few signs that we don't understand but has distinct handshapes.  For example, he would form his hands into "one" and pat the sides of his face with this handshape.  We are still using touch cues but whenever we can, we will try tactile signs first to give him more experience staying with our hands and to watch his responses to see if he understood our signs.

One interesting challenge with using tactile sign language with Orion is his tendency to lay on his back, on the ground. Anyone who knows Orion knows it's not easy to get him to sit up in a stroller or chair for a long time. You'd need to get down on your knees and hover over him.  When I want to sign "Mom" to him, I:
  1. Get down my knees.
  2. Bring my face/chest within an Orion's-arm-length.
  3. Either tap his shoulder or bottom of his elbow and tactually move my hand from there to underneath his hand.
  4. Sign as you would to a visual signer (if your hand touches an area on your face or chest, let his hand travel with your hand to that area).
    1. Do not grab his wrist or hand with your free hand or signing hand.
    2. Sign slowly so he can hold on and stay in constant touch with you.
I feel that using Hand Under Hand strategy showed Orion that we can get so much information through touch.  Instead of only objects, he's also checking out our hands and what they were doing.

Maybe I am my worst critic, I do have this feeling he's been ready for a while to explore tactile signs.  I'm saved by also being an eternal optimist, too, since I know the right time to start is right now.

Today, Orion and I were in the produce department of our local HEB grocery store.  He was amused with me signing "grapes" (tactile sign) with him feeling my top hand.  He also had his hand in the bag of grapes and eating a couple, too. What a nice mix of tactile signs and concept building!  I also showed him a cantaloupe and apples and he lost interest in touching fruits by the time I got to lemon and limes.  I know I'm bringing him back to the produce department wonderland!  It is so much more tactually and aromatically interesting than the aisles full of cans, jars and boxes.

At home, Orion does not have object cues or tactile symbols ready by him for him to use expressively.  Would he have used the other options if they were readily available? Who knows?  

I also came across this great document on Project SALUTE's website that reviews various tactile learning strategies: