'Have you done a poo?' I signed.
She gave one of those radiant apple-cheeked grins that made her nose wrinkle. 'So you have done a poo?' I asked again, waiting for another big grin, before unstrapping her for a look in her nappy.
And sure enough, there was the evidence; nice and soft, a long way from the hard squirrel's nut-store she'd been producing, watery-eyed, for so long. (In case you were wondering - a daily sachet of Movicol, mixed with orange or mango juice, is the answer.)
Although not the first time, it's the strongest evidence so far of Isobel's listening and receptive skills. Lately, whenever I give the appropriate sign, she will turn towards Daddy, the light or the telly. She can produce signs of her own too; 'light', slowly and deliberately, sometimes with a 'La'; 'Daddy', lots of times; and 'food', by touching her open mouth. She can mime self-feeding movements and use her left hand to emulate rays of light sprinkling over her face, in mimicry of Daddy doing it to her when teaching.
For what has seemed like forever, I have been teaching Isobel signs for colours, numbers and shapes using Kneebouncers games every day. I have sat in the bath supporting her on my lap, scrawling 'bath', 'Mummy', 'Daddy' and 'boat' on the tiles with washable crayons. Every day I have watched Signed Stories with her, sound on, hoping that she'd eventually make the connections.
I know deaf parents who also communicate in BSL with their hearing children at home, confident that their speech will evolve naturally - and in many cases, they do. But I cannot take that for granted with Isobel. Her oro-motor development has also been affected by CP, although steady improvements in her feeding indicate that she may not be that far off from acquiring speech.
Despite what others may think, Miles and I are not anti-speech. Rather than one or the other, we believe that teaching Isobel both BSL and spoken English may be the answer. After all, at this stage we still don't know if she will develop adequate speech even with therapy, in which case she will have BSL to fall back on. Whatever the outcome, it means that at least she will have a head start over children with CP from hearing families learning Makaton.
For a long time though - frustratingly for me - Isobel didn't seem to be responding much to my lessons. I wasn't even sure if she wanted to learn, due to the limited motor dexterity in her hands. As a deaf parent trying to get used to digital hearing aids, neither was I confident if I could support her in her vocal development - an area that I knew that she was keen to work on.
So her first session with two SALTs - one of whom worked with deaf children and was trained to BSL Level 3 - came as a relief. Through turn-taking with bells and rattles, the two therapists were able to demonstrate how Isobel DID respond, and built on this by also turn-taking in the formation of new sounds and one-hand signs.
Give and take. It's a key to good communication. Not that Isobel wasn't already identifying specific requests for coloured balls, of course, but she just didn't seem to be moving on. Now, with her facing me in a sitting position supported by one other adult, I sign 'ball', pushing a beach ball under her watchful eye. The other adult will move her hands in the same sign, then encourage her to push it back - although lately, she's more likely to do it herself. We give and take this ball, over and over again.
She clearly enjoys giving more than she does taking. Taking an offered object from you, she will immediately offer it back. Glance a second time, and she'll grunt with perseverance, still holding it out.
She will respond to instructions to put things back. She is perfecting the art of placing balls in a toy helter-skelter that we got her for Christmas, which encourages her to master shape-sorting.
Shame she's not as obedient when I ask her to swallow her medicines, preferring to hold them in her mouth for as long as possible instead. That routine - which usually precedes breakfast and supper - can take anything up to 30 minutes. 'COME ON!' I feel like yelling in a panic over time, but I know it's not worth it. Outwardly, I just sigh with resignation, and repeat myself, calmly but firmly.
Even if Isobel doesn't always show it, she is definitely learning. In contrast to non-disabled children whose physical evidence of their learning correlates smoothly with the upwards curve expected of them - as on a graph - those with CP don't. Due to the work they have to put into overcoming their disabilities every day, the evidence of that learning appears in steps, rather than one smooth curve, even though they are learning at that rate.
Plateau, surge, plateau. At least Isobel is consistent in her love of vocalising, engaging in little games where, in a concerted effort to reach a new pitch and/or volume, she'll stick out her legs from the chair or pram: 'Ahhhhh-UHHHH!' 'Hell-lloooo,' Miles or I would respond, to which she would cut in, enthusiastically louder than before. She'll do it any time, anywhere; even on the bus, which can raise laughs.
Isobel's favorite color is yellow. At her last physio session, she reached out determinedly for a huge canary-yellow exercise ball, then when Helen bounced her on it, tummy-down, said, 'Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah,' without meaning to. Whenever she watches me sign-singing Yellow on YouTube, she harmonises in recognition.
Whatever Isobel's speech potential, though, I'm conscious of how effectively others teach communication. Once, I took her to a local hearing baby rhyming session - and was surprised at how much the facilitators packed in in 30 minutes. They went through the rhymes so fast - the mothers singing along blithely - that little attention seemed to be paid to how much their children were following. These were people who took communication so much for granted that they overlooked the vital role it played in their education.
I know I'm not alone in expressing such concerns. 'Everything we think we know about the world is learned through language,' the writer Louise Stern has said, 'We need to understand that language is more important for human beings than food or water. It's what makes us human.'
Neither are they restricted to deaf and disabled children: in campaigning for gentler children's television, those former presenters of Playaway were right. A recent Ofsted report revealed to the BBC that 30% of three-year-olds started school with a marked speech delay.
In any case, I don't plan to take Isobel to those baby rhyming sessions again. Stepping Stones' sing/sign-alongs are far livelier and more expressive, and they do make her laugh.
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