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More Language Development from Fishy!

Skills are funny things. Kids acquire them in fits and starts, lose bits of them again, develop bad habits along with good ones, and intersperse balky moments of complete obtuseness with unexpected flashes of pure genius. Anyone who’s ever tried to get their child to demonstrate a new skill on cue for camera or proud relatives knows just how frustrating it can be when you’re sure a child has learned something, only to have them look at you blankly when you provide them the chance to do it again.

Fishy’s language ability is like this. He has a stable vocabulary of 6-7 hand signs (some of which he occasionally confuses with each other, and 2 of which he rarely uses unless prompted), plus a reasonably good ability to select items by pointing to them, provided they are nearby. He can string together 2-3 signs in a row in little proto-sentences, and we generally speak his signs aloud as he does them, adding in syntax and prepositions and so forth as needed. For example, if he signs =Fishy= =want= [points to book], we’ll say “Fishy… wants… to read a story.” He often signs out of order at first, then corrects himself, so the above sentence would probably look like:

Him: =Want=

Me: “You want…”

Him: =Fishy=

Me: “Fishy… Fishy wants?”

Him: =want= =Fishy= =want=

Me: “Fishy wants… what do you want, sweetie?”

Him: [pause, then points to the book]

There might be even more mix-ups and repetitions before I finally get a full sentence. It’s made more confusing by the fact that he has no signs for “yes” and “no,” so if I misinterpret what he’s pointing to or guess incorrectly at his meaning, I don’t always know it unless I give him what I thought he wanted and he starts to fuss. Then we have to start all over. He is, on the whole, remarkably patient with me.

There are also a few signs that his ABA therapist uses with him regularly, prompting him to imitate her, both in sentences and in songs (like “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “Wheels on the Bus”). The first big piece of language development I witnessed was when he adopted one of these signs and began using it on his own in other contexts. The sign was =time=, which the therapist used in “time for a break” and “time to say bye-bye” at the middle and end of each session respectively.

Now, he uses the =time= sign to indicate wanting any activity to start or finish! Since he hasn’t seen so much of me in a long time, when I come over now, he spends a lot of time signing =time= (for) =Fishy= (and) [points to me]… especially if I start having a conversation with his parents or paying attention to his baby brother instead of playing with him!

More exciting still, Fishy has now invented a sign of his own. A few months ago, his parents and therapist began noticing him using a hand-sign they had never seen before, and he would sign =want= and then the mystery sign. He often did this often towards the end of his therapy sessions, when he gets to watch a video for a few minutes (he adores movies), so they wondered if it might mean “movie.” If it didn’t, they didn’t want to give him the idea, so they carefully watched when he used it for some time, and decided that it did in fact mean “movie,” and started treating it as such. Vocabulary by consensus– I think this is a common way for little kids and their parents to agree on what a word means (you decide your toddler means “bottle” when he says “buhbuh,” and so “buhbuh” becomes the word for “bottle” in your house, at least for a while).

This alone is pretty incredible, given the smallness of his vocabulary and how long it tends to take him to acquire new signs. But something even more amazing was about to happen. He’s extended that sign to further meanings. (He’s done this before with signs that were taught to him, adapting them as needed: =more= sometimes gets used to mean “yes,” =goodnight= can also mean “I’m tired of this activity and want to stop”).

I found this out while having lunch with him. He gets regular “snack” rewards for eating his lunch well. They used to be specific rewards for eating X number of bites, or other discrete steps, but now they’re treated more like dessert– he eats a reasonable amount, then gets to ask for a treat. When he signs for a =snack=, I offer him a choice between 2 of his favorites– bite-sized graham or cheese crackers, veggie puffs, gummies, or yogurt melts– and he points to the one he wants.

On this particular day, he kept signing =movie= and I was baffled. Movie time isn’t till evening, and as much as he loves them, he doesn’t usually start begging for them until fairly late in the day, or unless he’s sick, and never before in the middle of a meal. The sign was still relatively new, and I thought he might just be over-using it, as he sometimes does with new signs. So I kept prompting him “Movie? No, you know it’s nowhere near movie time. Do you mean you want a snack? Can you sign ‘snack’ for me?” And he would sign =snack= and then go back to signing =want= =movie= and I was utterly baffled.

Finally, he pushed away the snacks I was offering him and leaned WAY across the table and pointed at an empty container of a third type of snack that I hadn’t even noticed was there. And the light went on in my head. “Oh! You want one you like better! You were trying to tell me you wanted a different snack, your favorite snack!” I ran and grabbed a new container of those snacks and was rewarded with a huge grin when I offered them to him. So I think the =movie= sign also means “favorite thing” of any kind. And I think that Fishy is one smart cookie.

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