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Tactile Sign Language to Support Visual Sign Language

Dylan's hand is on Kim's as they finish co-signing Christmas tree. Both are smiling as Dylan looks to the tree with a shiny round Dylan ornament on it.

I remember the first time I felt Dylan’s hands on mine as I signed to him, and how quickly his attention shifted to that signing and my face. He was three years old, and we were walking down the path outside of his preschool. At last there was shared attention with which to foster relationship and communication. I can’t tell you the joy I felt in that moment.

We had been modeling visual sign language since Dylan was only a few months old, but he was not initiating signs on his own, or even copying our signs. I’d been advised to take my hand and form his into the proper hand shape and guide his hand and arm through the proper movement—my hand on top, my hand in control. Well, I don’t know about your kids or students, but Dylan did not respond well to this. Each time I tried, he would withdraw his hands from mine and turn away. There he was with his hands fisted against his chest and his head turned away from mine. Not exactly the shared communication and relationship I was aiming for.

I’ve always been a follow Dylan’s lead kind of mom. When he didn’t relax into my shoulder to cuddle as my other babies had done, I learned to hold him facing out. When he didn’t like to snuggle in my arms, I learned he responded better to my nurturing, with my sitting next to him and touching him rather than me holding him. (Who knows perhaps he needed to see me or see out where we were going.) The point being, if I had persisted in trying to parent him as I had my other children, we would both have been frustrated. Instead, we enjoyed a responsive, communicative relationship. Dylan’s communications - cries, withdrawal, relaxation, smiles - were noticed and responded to, and I think he learned he could trust me to respond to his communication about what was working for him.

But how was I to help us move beyond touch and body language to communicating through words? Having Dylan withdraw and turn away as I tried to form his hands into signs or words did not fit at all with our existing communication style and relationship, but he wasn’t responding to my visual sign even though it seemed he had adequate vision to see it. What was the answer?

At last, I asked Ed Gervasoni, Dylan’s Orientation and Mobility Specialist, about tactile sign. I’d heard about it, but really had no idea how to start. Should I be beside him or across from him, how should I position our hands, how would he get a sense of what I was saying if his hand wasn’t actually making the sign? Ed simply put his hands underneath mine and started signing. You mean it’s as easy as that, I thought.

Next thing I knew there I was with Dylan; I put my hands under his and started to sign something and he didn’t pull away. Even better, his eyes came towards my face and to our hands, giving me that sense of connection and relationship I wanted. It was much later that I learned that touching the palms of both hands triggers an orienting reflex. It is a protective reflex that says pay attention to what is touching your hands. So for the first time, as I signed, Dylan’s brain was tuned in to what was happening. I knew then that this would be the way that we could continue the touch and body language driven relationship and communication we had and help move his language development to a higher level. And as is true with hand-under-hand used for other purposes, the hands have helped Dylan to see, and allowed him control of the input and movement.

Over the years, the hardest part about tactile sign has been the impression that Dylan gets adequate information visually to learn language and concepts so doesn’t need tactile sign. When we adults see him navigate the world as a sighted person, it is easy to think that he can understand what we are signing to him the same way he visually knows when the sidewalk ends and the grass starts or how to find his way around on a very large campus. We forget that the brain needs information from two or more senses to form concepts. We forget that pairing touch and vision help Dylan’s brain hold onto what he has seen, so he can use that information and learn from it. Then over time with enough repetition, Dylan does learn the visual sign and with familiarity of the sign and use of it in routine, the touch can be faded away. As with everything else with Dylan, it is a fine line in expecting him to rise to the challenge of using his vision, and recognizing that sometimes he still needs the tactile support to use his vision more effectively and with less fatigue.

My older children had bedtime songs that I sang to them every night. For Dylan, I signed the same songs. This was a very familiar part of our routine, and he seemed to be connected with the process. Then one day I needed a photo or video of tactile sign as an example for a presentation the next day. I asked Roy to video the bedtime songs that night and for the first time offered my hands to Dylan before I started. Reaching out and placing his hands on top of mine, Dylan accepted my invitation and together we started signing, hands to hands, eyes to eyes, and heart to heart. Part way through, Dylan lifted his left hand off of mine and began to sign with me. There it was, from passive to active through the simple act of pairing touch with the vision, even in familiar routines, with familiar signs. I was reminded of how often I thought his vision was enough.

Even now, as Dylan is so into watching and imitating signs, tactile sign is woven throughout the day. In the past, I had to remember to offer tactile sign. Now, by reaching for my hand, Dylan lets me know when he needs the touch to get more information or to rest his eyes. Talk with me this action says, and I do.

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