Lizzie arrived at The Infants’ Home in early 2008 – a shy little girl of about 14 months who needed additional support with her mobility and feeding.
Most children with Down Syndrome have poor oral strength, so Lizzie’s food needed to be pureed or mashed. She progressed well in the babies program at Johnson House, becoming a sociable and engaging child.
Moving up to the Johnson House 2-5 year-old program Lizzie was half the size of some of the other children. She had limited language skills to fend for herself or be able to ask for help.
For Lizzie’s educators at Johnson House the task was to help her communicate with others; build relationships with her peers; and ensure she received the nutrition she needed to grow stronger.
Early Childhood Teacher Mariam Christodoulos says: “Lizzie had a social right to be able to come into her space at The Infants’ Home, be herself, and enjoy communicating with other children."
Sign language was one of the strategies used to help Lizzie be part of Johnson House. The entire group of 30 children learned some basic signs and gestures from Makaton – a language program based on a combination of spoken words, signs and graphic symbols.
Makaton provides a means of communication for people whose speech is difficult to understand.
The Johnson House children learnt the Makaton way to say yes, no, thank you, help, drink, lunch, wash hands, toilet, sit, and come, as well as colours, animals and other everyday words. With Makaton, the conversations flowed.
The internet was also a wonderful source of teaching resources. The Johnson House team used clips from YouTube – songs performed in Makaton that were projected onto a wall so everyone could join in.
Many of the children who were not used to talking with their hands were soon putting their whole body into what they wanted to say.
Not surprisingly, everyone’s vocabulary and comprehension improved. And the storytelling became something to behold. All the children learned that communication is about so much more than words.
With such a fun way to find and share common ground, all the children soon took more initiative to include Lizzie in their play. They realised that being part of a group, and having moments with friends, was not just for their carers to instigate. The children came to understand a whole new world of inclusion.
Some days, parents would ask the educators at Johnson House about these unusual new hand gestures and movements their children were making at home to ask for more dinner, or to pass a toy. The children had taken their new Makaton communications skills home.
Before long, Lizzie’s verbal expression developed, and two and three-word sentences emerged. As Lizzie’s speech continues to improve, her need to use signing has decreased as she gains confidence in her spoken words.
Lizzie’s physical environment also needed some attention. Everything in the main playroom at Johnson House, such as furniture and shelves, was organised within a child’s arm-span so that Lizzie could reach, steady herself, and move throughout the room.
She quickly progressed from tentative cruising around furniture to walking. Now, it is difficult to stop her.
Perhaps the biggest achievement for Lizzie has been her social progression. She arrived from Johnson babies with no circle of friends and limited means to make them. Today, she is socially confident, with her own group of playmates.
Early Childhood Educator Amy Jones says they are not just friends who feel they need to take care of Lizzie. They are friends who share her interests; friends who choose to play with her. They are equals.
"In many cases a failure on the adults' part is to see the disability before the child," says Amy. "But the children don't. They see Lizzie just as Lizzie."
Lizzie is off to big school in 2012 where she will join her older brother Max and sister Olivia at Haberfield Public School.
Mariam and Amy say Lizzie has taught the Johnson House team many things.
"She taught us inclusion," says Mariam. "When Lizzie arrived at Johnson House in 2008, we were moving from being exclusively for children with additional needs to a more inclusive setting.
"Lizzie helped us see our first steps to inclusion as it should be. She has been our hands-on lesson in inclusion."
Amy says that with special needs children it is easy to see the disability before you see the little girl.
"Now, Lizzie is an inquisitive, confident and independent child," says Amy." She is caring and empathetic towards others. She is aware of herself, aware of her environment, and aware of her place. It will be a very sad day when she leaves."
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