Re-Learning Letter Sounds: The Almost Impossible Mountain Climb to American Sign Language

Over the last several months, I discovered that I do not have a letter-symbol-sound understanding. That is confusing, so allow me to try explaining another way. I do not necessarily recognize letters, which makes it difficult to teach the letter sounds. I discovered this while sitting in my literacy class. The teacher would say a sound and I would actually see an image – not a letter.

I then spent some time attempting to figure out what I was going to do to develop my special education skills. Teaching phonics is a key element of my job.

Like most days, I tried to paint. It was helpful in the fact that it allowed me to work through my feelings, but I did not miraculously find an answer – or maybe I did. Just after I painted my last piece, I remembered something that happened to me in the 4th grade. At that time, I joined City Wide Choir. I was struggling to really sing out and speak up for and myself. Mr. A., my teacher at that time, taught us how to sign our names. Mr. A. would play a note on the piano, sign it, and then have us sing it.

With the memory fresh in my head I signed, “My name is Rhonda.” Not fast – I am sure I made some big errors, but it was easier for me to use my hands then it was for me to use my voice.

I set out to try it in my class. I decided to use a sign, speak the sound, say the picture on the card, and finally speak the sound to my students. My first day was not miraculous by any means, but it worked. I was able to slow down, match the symbol to the sound and match the sign to the symbol.

Since, I have been taking a little time each week to dedicate to watching sign language (ASL specifically). I can state here and now that I have so much respect for the deaf/hearing impaired community. I do NOT say that as hero worship. I say that with the understanding that I wish I had been taught to sign earlier in my life. The body is so interesting. I used to move my hands without mission or purpose. Signing makes me feel like my hands have a purpose. And I appreciate the fact that there are not so many words. Most of my life English has been a challenge. I stumble over words, phrases, rules, sounds, and letters. I could cry right now – I just feel like I missed out on so much.

I have no idea if there is any research into teaching individuals with autism sign language in addition to their own native language. I would love to find out.

In the middle of full time work and full time school, I have realized that I do not have enough hours in my day to devote to learning sign the right way, but I at least plan to try. Now, I plan to put out a challenge to any reader that I may have, IF you have any resources that you would like to share – PLEASE DO! I am open.

Looking back at the title of this article, I would like to explain why I call this the almost impossible climb to American Sign Language. I only say this because it is a great challenge for me to force myself to move beyond finger signing. To date, I have never been able to learn another language other than English. My fear with sign language is that I might mess up and say the wrong thing and completely offend another person. I have some interesting hand to eye coordination issues that sometimes impacts me when I do things like walk (this might look like me trying to put the same foot forward twice – forcing me to trip – it also impacts me in other ways as well) and point or do anything at the same time. I could do each lesson and finger sign, but then what am I teaching myself??? How am I growing my students??? I want to show my children that having ASD and learning disabilities may present challenges, but with the right supports they can build new skills and become stronger people.

It is my hope to become the best special education teacher I can be. I hope that ASL might help me. I thank you all so much for your endearing support. May we all continue

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New News is Good News

It has been a long and interesting week here in my house.  My sons both underwent testing with a specialist in the field of cognitive disabilities.  There are varying reasons why, but the important part was that they both needed answers and this testing was going to provide that.  My oldest was diagnosed ADHD with sensory issues and my youngest was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder. The oldest has additional testing he needs to complete.

I was not sure that I was ready to receive the news myself.  Yes, I have LD, ASD with SPD and I have a daughter with ADHD, SPD, and LD. I even knew my oldest son had LD’s.  Yet, the information impacted my sons and I in a strange way. Allow me to take a step back and tell you all about that day.

Knowing we were going to have the results meeting on this day, I took the liberty of taking the boys out of school. I had no idea that doctor would find anything. I felt that the testing had been stressful and even if nothing was wrong, the boys needed a day off.

We slept in that morning and took our dogs on a long walk. The mood was light. We were laughing and joking.   We mutually decided that we would have breakfast together.

As we loaded into the car, the mood began to change. It was silent. Then out of the blue we found our selves behind an advertisement that read “Stump Removal and Daughter”. We could not figure the sign out – even the picture on the advertisement was odd. And it quickly got us laughing.

I cannot explain how hard it was to point out the ordinary things in life, just as you are driving down to the unknown.  We had breakfast and watched President Obama address the Nation on the monitor in the dinning room. My sons had all these questions about Russia and the Ukraine. It was surreal – watching the news and watching the clock – hearing about this conflict as we had our own internal struggle about our own day.

Finally, it was time. We got to the elevators – walked to the office and I was eventually asked back to hear the results. The doctor and I then broke the news to the boys. My oldest had a few questions. My youngest quietly took it all in.

After we sat in the car for a little while. The boys both felt heavy and finally asked if we could do something fun.  I then drove them to the store, purchased real record players, bought albums, and took each son on a private walk to figure out if they could say the things that they were having trouble saying.

There were the obvious questions. What is this illness? Am I sick? Do I have to take medication? Then there were the other questions. Why me? Did I do something wrong?

Each new day brings more questions, as one might expect. Knowing though has had a great many benefits. It has helped my son to answer questions about themselves that had been unanswered for years. It has allowed my husband and I to take a second look at our children and focus on them over their grades. It has opened conversations at school that are helping our sons to navigate school better because they know what is happening and they are trying to avoid the pitfalls.

Parents as you consider testing, especially if you are worried about the labels that you child could potentially have, my advice to you is to take a deep breath and accept what comes. I only regret waiting this long to do this.  As we step out into the future, I plan to keep you all posted on our progress.

Kind Regards,

Dr. Richmond