Wednesday, January 28, 2009

So, are you teaching him sign?

We get asked that a lot. It's a perfectly reasonable question, but I always feel a little uncomfortable responding to it. The answer is yes and no, and we've gone back and forth on it. How's that for equivocation?

When we first found out Ben was deaf, it seemed like a no-brainer -- of course we would learn ASL and teach it to him. After all, isn't that how deaf people communicate? And gosh, ASL looks so fascinating and beautiful, almost dance-like, when other people do it. It'll be fun to learn, right?

In fact, many people who gain at least some benefit from hearing aids or cochlear implants do end up using spoken language, either primarily or exclusively. It turns out that choosing a communication mode (sign, cuing, oral, or some combination of these) is a complicated and often controversial decision. It's certainly not a no-brainer. Like it or not, the world isn't currently set up to support those who rely on sign language. The vast majority of people on the planet don't know it and don't plan on learning it. None of our friends and family know much sign. And it turns out that it's not so easy to learn. You don't just wiggle your fingers in vague approximations of the objects or actions you're depicting. It's an entire language, with grammatical structure that is quite unlike any spoken or written language. While many signs are iconic, they are so abstract that you can't interpret them just by guessing.

Also, we started pursuing the cochlear implant option pretty early on, and more than one person in that camp gave us the unequivocal message that signing was frowned upon. We were told again and again that getting a CI was just the beginning of a long, hard journey of aural rehabilitation, that it would take years of intense therapy for him to learn to listen, understand, and speak intelligibly. The most popular form of therapy for this is AVT, or Auditory-Verbal Therapy. One of the tenets of AVT is that no visual communication of any sort is used, that in fact even lip-reading is discouraged; the therapist often hides his or her mouth with a screen while talking. The most dogmatic adherants claim that AVT is wholly incompatible with sign, even when it is introduced by the family outside of therapy.

The other side also has its passionate defenders. For many decades, deaf children were subjected to comparatively ineffective oral education practices, and often forbidden from using sign. This had a devastating effect on their educational outcomes, employment opportunities, and quality of life. During the latter part of the 20th Century, there was a resurgence of Deaf Pride and Deaf Culture, centered on a reclamation of sign as the natural language of the deaf. There is now a vibrant and diverse Deaf community. Many members of this community feel strongly that every deaf child should be taught ASL as a primary language, and some go so far as to assert that any expectation that deaf children can or should learn to talk is a manifestation of a form of bigotry called "audism" (I'm not making that up -- Google it). And I won't get into what they say about cochlear implants.

Those are the extremes, and you can imagine them spanning a continuum of more or less constant linear density. Amid all this brouhaha, parents of newly-diagnosed deaf children have to make some difficult decisions. The good news is that these days children thrive with a variety of communication modes, and also the decision doesn't have to be carved in stone.

We started off with the idea that we would teach Ben some signing as a support to his overall language development. At that point the wheels were in motion for getting a CI, but we didn't know for sure whether he would be a candidate, whether it would work, or how well he would do with it. Also, when we take off his equipment (for the bath or when he sleeps), he can't hear at all, and we figured that we would need sign at those times. In the run-up to implantation, we decided that we should "back off" from sign, at least for awhile after activation, in order to focus all of our and his attention on learning to listen and understand what he was hearing.

Within a few months after activation, it was becoming obvious that he was making extraordinary progress with hearing and language, including speech, even without all that intense therapy. Basically, he is back on track for typical language development. So now we're fairly relaxed about it all -- when he shows an interest, we introduce some more signs, and he takes to them pretty well. It doesn't seem to interfere at all with his oral communication. Quite the contrary -- when he pairs a sign with one of his more enigmatic utterances, we are able to identify it as an intentional word and help him refine it, and this has expanded his expressive vocabulary and reduced frustration. At the same time, we are now confident that he does not and probably will never actually need ASL. Now that the pressure's off, it is kind've fun to learn in bits and pieces. This early, casual exposure will probably make it easier for him to learn ASL as a complete formal language later if he ever wants to.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ben and the Puh-puh Crayon

Note to self: Get Ben a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Here's another video that we shot on Saturday. Ben is playing with crayons. These are special toddler crayons that look like the tips of ordinary crayons (without the paper-covered barrel), but much larger and hollowed out, so that you can grip them in a fist or stick a thumb inside. Nice for stacking, too, as Ben figured out immediately. Ben is very talkative in this video. Note that "Bamimi" (used indiscrminately for any of his four grandparents) is starting to evolve into "Bimi" (Grammy) and "Bibi" (Grampy). Also note the two word phrase "brown line" at about 2 minutes 27 seconds.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cookies, Water Buffalo Redux

  • Well, thank you very much, Uncle Steve! Guess who had to sing the Water Buffalo song 50 gazillion times this morning in the car on the way back from Buffalo? Yes, that would be me. Y'see, my Uncle Steve thoughtfully sent me the following link: It's a Veggie Tales song. About a water buffalo. Thinking that Ben might enjoy it. Well, he did. With a vengeance! (BTW, the song is captioned!!)
  • Remember how much Ben liked that molasses cookie from Bamimi? Well, it's been awhile now since he had that particular pleasure. He gets the occasional animal cracker and is adept at both saying and signing "cookie." This evening Neil and Ben were surveying the titles on Ben's bookshelf, and Neil had a little extemporaneous fun with a passage from "Is Your Mama a Llama?", roughly along the lines of, "My Mama has purple hair and wears glasses, and I don't think a llama has that molasses." Ben promptly signs cookie!! (Mom and Dad, I would interpret this as a specific request, if you get my drift.) Later, Neil and I were talking about this, and I quietly muttered "molasses" under my breath, and Ben (who until then had been concentrating on something else) immediately signed and said cookie, followed by a very emphatic "Bamimi!" He makes connections, that kid.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Here's Ben expressing great enthusiasm for the noodles that Neil is cutting up for his lunch. Note when Ben signs and says "eat" toward the beginning of the video. One thing that was really driven home to me while I was captioning this was how much narrating we do -- we describe everything we're doing, everything Ben's doing, everything that everyone else is doing, everything. It almost looks silly when you read it on the screen, but it has become very normal for us. This is the advice my mother gave us right after we found out Ben was deaf -- to immerse him in a "language soup," as she called it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Water Buffalo

This morning Ben and I were reading books together. First, we looked at some of the pictures in "Alexander and the Magic Mouse." (The text is still a little advanced for him, but I LOVE the illustrations, and Ben is gradually developing an interest as well.) One of the characters is a yak, but I was momentarily confused and referred to it as a water buffalo. At this point, Ben gave it a little thought, then seemed to lose interest, and he slid off my lap and went over to his bookshelf. I continued to admire the beautiful pictures, and wasn't paying much attention to him. After awhile I realized that he was calling out to me, so I looked over. He had gotten the Eric Carle book "Panda Bear Panda Bear, What do you see?" off the shelf and turned to ... the picture of the water buffalo!

He does this sort of thing a lot. He has an amazing memory, especially for passages from books. We'll make a fairly subtle passing reference to a book that we know he hasn't looked at in quite awhile, and after a moment's thought, he'll take us directly to that book and that page. I have a terrible memory, so he must have inherited his from Neil.

Anyway, he kept returning to the picture of the water buffalo. So this afternoon we looked at pictures of water buffalo (as well as other animals from the same book) on the web. We printed out a picture of a water buffalo. All evening he dragged this picture around, showing it to us, returning to it every few minutes for further contemplation. Several times he demanded that I find the same picture online again so he could look at it on the computer screen and compare it to the printout, and to the Eric Carle illustration. It has become a deep obsession.

In other news, Ben's receptive vocab is now well over 250, and we keep coming up with more words that we've forgotten to include on the list, so that's probably an undercount. And his expressive vocab is over 50. It's hard to decide what to put on that list, because there are a lot more words that he approximates very poorly but very consistently -- as if he's come up with his own version of the word, but he'll use it very deliberately. He has also developed a renewed interest in signing lately, now that he's gaining some greater manual dexterity and imitative capability. There are only a few signs that he uses spontaneously (more, bath, all gone, and cookie), but there are others that he'll use if we ask him to.

Oh, and he knows several colors, too -- orange (of course), purple, yellow, green, and blue. Meaning that he will point to an object of that color and say the color word. I would have thought that red would be an early and easy color, because it's so vivid, so it's interesting that he doesn't have that one yet, either receptively or expressively.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Icosahedron and cookies

And here's another video:

(I'm starting to get the hang of this captioning thing! My timing is still a little off sometimes, but all in all it's not bad.)

The recipe for molasses cookies goes back at least to my Great Grandmother. They are DELICIOUS! Also, check out the "Future MAA Member" bib. [MAA = Mathematical Association of America] When we ask, "Where is the icosahedron?" Ben points to his bib! Now that's what I call receptive vocab!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cube, Haircut, and Grandfathers

Both of Ben's grandfathers have had birthdays recently. His maternal grandfather ("Grampy") had one last Saturday, and his paternal grandfather ("Grandpa") is having one today. Happy Birthday to both!!!

Here's a video (also available on youtube: or with captioning at that Neil shot this morning. You can see the results of Ben's first haircut, as well as his fascination with his new Mozart Cube (another present from Great Aunt Kathy).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mini Santa

Awwwww ... ain't he cute?