Sign Language and Adoption: The Value of their Voice

August 7, 2016 ASL, attachment activities, August 2016 Feature - SIgn Language and Adoption, Family Stories, Heart System, sign language, speech delay, tracheo-malacia, VSD 0 Comments

You might think that sign language is only for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. We’d like to encourage you to reconsider. Signing is an incredibly valuable tool in any adoptive parent’s tool belt. It makes communicating with your newly adopted child exponentially easier – no matter their age or special need. And when communication happens, bonding can happen. Still skeptical? Read on. We think this month’s feature, Sign Language and Adoption, just might change your mind.


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Sometimes we have moments that don’t seem so huge at the time, but they deeply impact our hearts and they change the direction of our intentions. There was a moment that did just that for me, between me and our daughter Tessa. She had been home for several months and her speech continued to be delayed. At the time she was almost 3 years old, and we were riding in the car when she yelled out, “Oh Momma! Moonchee! Moonchee!” I had no idea what she was referring to. No earthly idea. She wasn’t holding anything. She wasn’t pointing to anything. There were no hand gestures. And she just kept repeating that word. “Moonchee! Moonchee!”

I asked her if it was something outside. Nothing. I asked her if it was something at home. Nothing. She just kept repeating it over and over. Each time more frustrated. Her eyes were passionate about it, but over the next several minutes the passion turned to disappointment. Deep disappointment.

I tried all I knew to try. This went on for miles as I drove. She just couldn’t figure out how to tell me what she wanted me to know so badly. I had nothing. Tears filled my eyes. I wanted so badly to know what my precious daughter wanted to tell me. But nothing connected. And there was loss in that moment. The tears fell down my cheeks as I looked back in the rearview mirror; she had given up. She and I both didn’t know what else to do. To this day, I do not know what it was.

And that moment changed me. I will now do what ever I can to give my little ones language. Because their voices want and need to be heard and understood.

While in China, Tessa was in the care of New Day Foster Home. There they evaluated her skills and milestones monthly; what a blessing to have received these records. We didn’t anticipate this information, it was such a gift given to us in country. The knowledge that month after month Tessa consistently scored a significant delay in her speech helped us to anticipate that her speech challenges wouldn’t be just a change in language, but something much more challenging.

Another gift we received was that she was already using a handful of adapted sign language that she had learned while at New Day Foster Home. We were so thankful that they took the time to teach basic sign language to her – knowing what she was signing to us on day one helped kick start the bonding process. Her voice was being heard! It was her non-verbal voice, but she knew we heard her! We understood her quietly communicated needs, and we saw the relief in her eyes. We were excited to go forward with our plan to teach her even more American Sign Language (ASL) as we knew the benefits it would bring to her and how it would help her bond to our family.

I had no idea at the time how critical it was going to be for her to have us give her this gift of sign, to continue to grow what NDFH had planted.

Our youngest daughter, Ava, was adopted through the foster care system and has been in our family for a bit longer than Tessa. She’s eight months younger than Tessa but they are very much virtual twins. Ava also has significant speech delays and so our love for learning ASL has translated into her everyday life as well. Bless her heart, her fine motor skills and dexterity sometimes challenge her to communicate her signs effectively, but she signs will joy and confidence.


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Ava and Tessa signing “candy”


Today, ASL is part of our everyday life. It has been a necessary bridge to give a confident voice to our little ones. We see how it has been a tool to bond all six of our children as they use ASL between each other. Often I see our oldest daughters communicate with each other from across the room as well as take the time to give signs to new words the little girls are struggling to articulate verbally. Once they are given a sign for it, the pressure is reduced and when there is a struggle to retrieve the word verbally they often easily retrieve the learned sign for it.

This is where I see the joy! Any chance we get, we give them a sign for a word to reduce those awful moments of intense disappointment when verbal communication fails.

As we help our little ones adjust to new surroundings, sounds, food, people and language, we jump on opportunities to give new words and names. They are like little sponges soaking in each new word. And when we are the ones that need help labeling, we might ask our little ones to “show Momma” and then once we see what it is they are wanting labeled, we give them the new word to learn. This pattern is constant with our littles ones. Often we do this new labeling though out the day without even realizing we are doing it. For some the label last for just a short time as they pick up language quickly, for others this chapter may last many months and sometimes years.

ASL is a great tool to use when we are out in public when things don’t need to be said out loud; a reminder to say please, thank you, be patient and wait, be careful, sit down or ask if they need to use the bathroom. One of the most interesting things I have found through our journey is how using sign can sometimes be harder to do emotionally than just saying words. Sometimes words are easier. I’ve found when those rough moments happen, when a child needs to apologize, ask forgiveness or give forgiveness, it often comes much easier to say the words “sorry” or “I forgive you”. But when we ask our kids to sign those words, that is much harder emotionally for some of them. I’m reminded again in these moments how much ASL connects to their hearts.

In using ASL I’ve seen our children’s confidence soar. Our older daughters have helped interpret in church for our friends’ children, our 17 year old visited local first responders with her ASL class to help them learn basic ASL so they could better serve our local deaf community, and our 15 year old served at a deaf school in the Caribbean during a short term mission trip. Our boys have loved being a part of teaching the little ones new signs and eagerly pull up their favorite ASL children’s videos to watch with their little sisters. They know that ASLPro is the easiest website to look up knew signs they want to learn. We still all have so much to learn, continuing to add new signs as often as possible.

Our oldest two daughters chose to take ASL in high school as their world language, what a blessing their knowledge has been! Our dear friends recently adopted their son and daughter who are just a bit older than Tessa. They were born deaf and we knew as a family we wanted to be able to build relationships with them and not have the lack of language as a barrier. We have loved the exposure to ASL in church, our dear friends have been so patient with us as we pick up on what we can when we see each other. With each new learned word, we pass it along to our children. We are learning ASL together… we are hungry for it!


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For our family ASL has been a beautiful tool. It’s been a part of our little girls’ healing process. Truly it’s a gift we are still unwrapping and we can’t wait to see how it will continue to be a blessing. As one of our older daughters researched the history of ASL, we learned that it all started because a man, Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, wanted to give a voice to his neighbor’s nine year old daughter who was deaf.

Just one man. Just one little girl. Look at the impact of his passion and selflessness. He saw the value in her voice just like we see the value of the voices of our children.

I challenge you to consider introducing sign language into your home, it just might be the voice that is waiting to come out. It’s never too late. You’ll be amazed at what a blessing it will be.

– guest post by Amber



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