When Sam Found Language

I will never forget the day that I met Sam*. He was tall and shy, with dark tousled hair. He came into my room tentatively and sat still and quiet in his chair.

"Hi, buddy," I greeted him. He smiled shyly.

"How are you?"

He smiled again.

I pointed to myself and signed my sign name. Jen. Then, I pointed to him and gestured for him to introduce himself.

"Eoh," he said. 

How old are you? I signed. He stared at me. I signed, You. Age? Another blank stare. I signed, 7? 8? 9? Sam squinted, confused. I grabbed a blank piece of paper and wrote the numbers down, gesturing for him to point to one. He shrugged.

Under the numbers I scribbled out the alphabet. I pointed to the first letter.

"What letter is this?" I asked, enunciating clearly. Sam shook his head. I covered everything but the first row of letters. Where is B? I signed. Sam shrugged.

I had to figure out how to get in. When Sam looked away, I noticed that his cochlear implants had New York Yankees stickers on them.

Do you like baseball? I signed. Again, a blank stare. I grabbed my iPad and Google image searched pictures of the New York Yankees. When he saw them, his eyes lit up. He grinned and jumped out of his chair. He pointed furiously to the pictures and then perfectly imitated a pitcher's throw.

Yeah! Baseball! I signed.

He copied my sign. Baseball.

After that first session, I began to infuse Sam with language: American Sign Language. We started with the finger alphabet. We practiced forming the letters with our hands, matching them to the written letters, spelling our names and items in the room. 

What are you sisters' names? I asked. Sam shrugged. After an email to his mother and some practice, Sam could tell me: C-A-S-E-Y and H-A-N-N-A-H.

We learned colors and numbers. We learned shapes, animals, and food. We worked on answering questions.

Are the Yankees going to lose tonight? I signed.

No! He signed sharply, giggling.

In the early sessions, there was a lot of gesturing. A lot of manipulatives. A lot of real-life examples. We tasted honey to learn sticky. We left a teddy bear sleeping in the corner of my room to learn hibernate. We got in and out of boxes to learn prepositions. We stepped on leaves to learn crunchy. With this newfound language, Sam's previous use of tantrums came to a halt. A playful personality started to show through.

Sam proved to be a quick learner. We used sign language to build his literacy skills. Soon, he could read and write simple sentences. He began learning harder language concepts.

Why did the Titanic sink? I signed.

Because too many compartments filled with water, he responded.

Once we had a strong foundation for language, we began to target speech production in CV and CVC words. Sam had a diagnosis of apraxia of speech. This meant that his brain wasn't properly informing his mouth how to move for speech. When he would grope, his mouth unsure of how to produce the phonemes, I would show him the sign. With that visual, he was able to produce the word. We built up to CVCVC words with carrier phrases, so that Sam was able to make functional statements and requests in spoken English.

When I look at him now, four years later, sitting among his classmates in my push-in session, I am overwhelmed by how far he has come. His dark hair is still tousled. His cochlear implants still have Yankees stickers on them. But now, when I ask him a question, instead of a blank stare or shrug, his long arm shoots into the air, bouncing with impatience to respond.

I call on him.

White light is a division of seven colors, he signs.

That's right. That's how we see a rainbow. I smile.

Sam came to me like most of my other students do: severely language deprived. He was eight years old, with bilateral cochlear implants, unable to speak, sign, read, or write. A developmentally and cognitively typical child, he was using tantrums to communicate. 

When he was given a visual language that his brain so desperately craved, he was finally able to blossom into the curious, goofy, and capable child that he is today.


*name changed