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Caleb's use of family sign language

Photo: Read Caleb's story

With no way of communicating about what he enjoyed or how he was feeling, Lisa and Pete struggled to include four-year-old Caleb, who has Down’s syndrome, in family life. Family Sign Language classes close to their South Wales home were the answer.

Four-year-old Caleb copies his older brothers Joe (8) and Ben (6) wanting to join in with their games like any younger brother. “He’s very sociable and likes to be where we are. He just loves people,” says Lisa.

Running around happily with Joe and Ben, Caleb’s very much a part of family life. But the family have come a long way in helping Caleb communicate. “This morning he signed ‘I want TV’,” Lisa recalls. “It’s taken nearly a week of repetition, but we got there. It’s lovely to see him do it.”

"We knew that Caleb's Down's syndrome meant things would be different for him."

“We knew that Caleb’s Down’s syndrome meant things would be different for him, that he’d need more support and would be more vulnerable than Joe and Ben.

"His Down’s was diagnosed straight after he was born, but we knew something wasn’t right with his hearing too.  He didn’t seem aware of loud sounds – the door slamming, the dog barking – things I’d expect him to react to.

“It was a long time then before we got Caleb’s hearing aids – we were so annoyed because his communication had suffered. For a child with development needs, it’s almost more important to make sure their senses are given the best chance.”

“Caleb’s hearing is intermittent – it gets worse and it gets better. He definitely hears things, but he can’t tell us what he hears.”

When Caleb’s Teacher of the Deaf told Lisa that the National Deaf Children’s Society were offering Family Sign Language classes* just a few miles from their home, she jumped at the opportunity. “We were struggling to communicate everyday things, so the classes came along at the right time.

“The signing has really helped with road safety – we sign ‘look’ and ‘listen’ at the curb to get him used to crossing safely. I try to bring it in as often as possible, so we’ll sign ‘open door’ every time we go out, and Pete and Caleb do action songs together.”

But the biggest breakthrough for the family was in the kitchen. “I bake with Joe and Ben a lot, and they love it,” Lisa says. “Caleb would never really join in, though. One morning it was just me and Caleb at home, and I was baking. I always try to get Caleb involved, do the ‘baking’ sign. This time he did it back, he was stirring, licking the spoon! He was watching the cakes rise in the oven and was so excited when they came out. It was wonderful!” 

“In playschool they’ve noticed a huge difference since we’ve started signing."

“In playschool they’ve noticed a huge difference since we’ve started signing – Caleb will sit and read a story book, his concentration is much better. He’ll do turn-taking, join in with songs, copy actions.”

As Joe and Ben get older, Lisa reflects on the challenge of explaining Caleb’s needs. “They love their brother and are brilliant with him, but they worry as well, especially Joe. He asks questions, so I explain that Caleb learns differently from them.

“Joe’s really keen to learn to sign too – I’d love the boys to learn together, as Caleb learns so much from them. And with school around the corner, hopefully his confidence in communicating will grow and grow.”

*The Family Sign Language classes were part of the It Starts Here project in Wales, funded by The National Lottery through Big Lottery Fund.