Skip navigation

Calls to Action

Research on deaf children with autism yields broader insights

Pioneering avenue of research began with a predoctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks
February 12, 2016

Recent studies with children affected by both autism and deafness have yielded new insights into helping these children, while also shedding light on important questions about how autism affects language and social development.

Psycholinguist Aaron Shield, of Miami University of Ohio, discussed his latest findings today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shield began his pioneering research at the intersection of autism and deafness as an Autism Speaks Predoctoral Fellow in 2008.

Insights from signing
For instance, Shield’s studies have shown that deaf children with autism tend to reverse the direction of their palm while signing. “This suggests differences in how they perceive and imitate others,” he notes, “differences that aren’t revealed in speech.” Signs – unlike spoken words – look different depending on where you stand, he explains. “This places demands on a person’s perspective-taking abilities.” This supports the idea that people with autism have particular difficulty inferring another person’s point of view.

Insights from pronoun use
Shield has also explored pronoun use – particularly “you” and “me” – among children with autism and deafness. Autism researchers and caregivers have long noticed that many people with autism have difficulty using pronouns and tend to avoid them in speech. Instead, they tend to repeatedly use names when referring to others and sometimes even themselves.

Some have proposed that this is due to autism-related difficulties with the seeming arbitrariness of a pronoun, which can be applied to many different people, Shield says. But counter to this idea, Shield found that deaf children with autism likewise tend to avoid using signed pronouns. This despite the fact that the sign for a pronoun consists of a straight-forward pointed finger. (To sign “me,” you point at yourself. To sign “you,” “he” or “she,” you point at the person.)

“Signing children with autism refer to themselves and to others using sign names, just as hearing children with autism use spoken-language names,” Shield says. “This suggests that there is something about names that is just clearer or less confusing to children with autism. Anecdotally, I’ve talked with a number of hearing people with autism and they agree, saying that names feel more ‘precise’ than pronouns.”

Signing and alternative communication
Shield has also explored the idea, popularized before the advent of speech-generating devices, that sign language would be an effective form of alternative communication for nonverbal children with autism. The idea goes to the heart of the enduring mystery of why many children with autism fail to develop spoken language.

“In the 70s and 80s, many researchers were convinced that sign language would be the silver bullet for children who couldn’t speak,” he notes. But while many nonverbal children are able to learn a few signs, Shield said he knew of no cases where a nonverbal child with autism learned to fully converse in American Sign Language.

What’s more, in a small pilot study with deaf children with autism, Shield found that 6 of the 23 children, or 26 percent, had failed to learn how to express words and sentences using sign language. That percentage is similar to the estimated 30 percent of hearing children with autism who don’t develop spoken language.

“To me this suggests that it’s the social deficits of autism that prevent some children from accessing language – regardless of whether it is signed or spoken,” Shield says. It also suggests that deaf children with autism can benefit from assisted communication devices – the same as hearing children with autism, he says. “Every child with autism is different and all possible avenues of communication must be explored.”

Insights for the autism community
In addition, Shield says his findings have the potential to help the autism community in several immediately practical ways.

First, they may help clinicians better identify autism in deaf kids – for instance, by looking for red flags such as reverse signing and failure to use pronoun signs.

Second, the signing reversals that he’s identified may provide insight into autism-related difficulties with perspective. For example, it may shed light on why many children with autism have difficulty learning through imitation – for instance, learning the body movement involved in holding a pen or kicking a ball.

Third, Shield says he’s been impressed at how extremely adept many deaf parents are at directing their children’s visual attention – overcoming a common challenge for many parents and therapists working with children who have autism.

“I’m hopeful that in future work we will be able to analyze the strategies that deaf parents are already using with their children with autism,” he says. “It may be that these strategies have the potential of shaping new intervention methods for all children with autism.” 

In an aside, Shield had a special thank you for Autism Speaks:

“Autism Speaks took a chance funding my research when I was a graduate student, and it was a totally new research topic,” he said. “I’m grateful that Autism Speaks took a chance on me and believed in the potential of my work. I look forward to delving even more deeply into this fascinating research topic and hope that my work will be of practical and clinical use to the greater autism community.”

To learn more about Aaron Shield’s work, also see “Autism Speaks (and Signs).”

Learn more about Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships here.