Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Question from Janet R., Texas

I have a 6 year old little boy who is deaf (has bilateral cochlear implants), and he has an Autism Spectrum Disorder – PDD-NOS. He is nonverbal, and he is learning sign language. Right now he is repeating Kindergarten in a Life Skills Class at an elementary school with no other deaf or hard of hearing students, faculty, or staff. He has his inclusion time with a regular kindergarten class during the day. The teacher is teaching those children a few signs (approximately 20-30…colors, animals, etc.). The school district considers that to be sufficient time with signing peers. We feel he needs to be immersed in a sign program in order for him to make meaningful progress in language. We are wanting our child put in the Regional Day School for the Deaf. They will not even give him the opportunity because he does not have more expressive signs. He understands alot more sign than he can produce. Right now he can only produce approximately 10 expressive signs. How do we get the School District and the Auditory Impairment Dept. to give him the opportunity to see what his potential will be? Is there any curriculum or research on HOW to teach sign language to deaf/autistic children? I have found several articles on why it is a good idea, but I am looking for research on the best way to teach a deaf/autistic child sign language. Any help would be GREATLY appreciated!!!!!

Question from Janet R., Texas. Posted November 19, 2009.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

Although it appears that hearing loss and autism spectrum disorders are more common than they used to be (or more accurately diagnosed), there is relatively little information out there for us to go on. So, we went out in search of people with expertise in this area. One response, in the form of a PowerPoint presentation  came from Jennifer Adams at the Rochester School for the Deaf (Rochester, NY). It can be found on our website <click here>.

Another response came from  Jet Isarin and Roger Verpoorten, at PonTeM in the Netherlands:

For me (J.I.), as a parent of a an autistic son with a moderate hearing loss, a researcher in the field of disability in general and deafness and autism specifically, your attempt to enroll your deaf autistic son in a deaf school seems to be more than justified. It will, however, require specific knowledge of autism to teach your son sign language and to help him find his way in school and with peers. Maybe the parents organized in Deafautism can share their experiences with you.  In the meantime, here are some things we have learned, if indirectly:

Both spoken language and sign language are rapid and transient: once an utterance is made it quickly disappears without a trace. Therefore, autistic children find it hard to acquire a first language; a second language might be just as hard or even harder.  It does appear that the visual features of sign language better fit the visual abilities of (most) children with autism. However, the multidimensionality of sign language (form, position, movement, and nonmanual features [like facial expression]), and the complexity of expressive signing often clash with the (dis)abilities of autistic children.  Given all of this, most autistic children develop language slowly and differently than other children, sometimes failing to develop any expressive and/or receptive language skills. These

difficulties can be related to different sensory experiences, failures in joint attention, and problems with the integration of information from different sources.

There is evidence that deaf autistic children with cochlear implants tend to suffer, more than profit, from their implants.  CI’s tend to engender auditory stimuli that cannot be processed and/or decoded by deaf autistic children. For more information, you might look at Edwards, L.C. (2007). Children with cochlear implants and complex needs: a review of outcome research and psychological practice. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 258 – 268 (available free at www.jdsde.oxfordjournals.org).

As you search for a school for your son, it is important that you look for programs in which teachers have specialized knowledge both with regard to language acquisition by children with significant hearing losses and also the special language and cognitive needs of children with autism.  We wish you the best of luck!