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Researching autism and deafness

Image: Cover of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities

Cover of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities

After over a year of collaboration, Christen Szymanski, from the Clerc Center, and Gallaudet University colleagues Patrick Brice, Kay Lamb, and Sue Hotto, published findings related to the prevalence of autism in children with hearing loss in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities online. The article, "Deaf Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders," is based on data gathered from the past five years of the Gallaudet Research Institute's Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth, which relies on schools to report demographic information about the students they serve. Data showed that during the 2009-2010 school year, one in 59 children with hearing loss were also receiving services for autism. This is nearly twice the rate of hearing children reported to have autism, one out of every 110. Szymanski and her Gallaudet colleagues also found that over the past several years, children with profound to severe hearing loss were more likely to have a diagnosis of autism. Research about communication modalities, academic environments, and parental hearing status of these children is also presented.

The journal is one of the leading peer-reviewed, scholarly periodicals focusing on aspects of autism spectrum disorders and related developmental disabilities. It focuses on awareness of autism, its possible causes, the numbers of people affected, and the care, education, and treatment necessary to assure that those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) achieve their maximum potential. Autism, like other ASDs, is considered a developmental disability that impacts a child throughout his or her entire life. Children with autism and other ASDs often struggle to communicate their wants and desires, socialize with their peers, and regulate their behaviors and emotions. Communication challenges for deaf children with autism are even more difficult, says Szymanski and her colleagues.

Abstract from the journal article:

Epidemiological studies investigating the prevalence of autism have increased in recent years, within the United States and abroad. However, statistics as to how many of those children may also have a comorbid hearing loss is lacking. The prevalence of school-administrator reported diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (clinical diagnosis [DSM-IV] and/or IDEA classification) among children with hearing loss in the U.S. was estimated from the 2009-2010 Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth conducted by the Gallaudet Research Institute. Results indicate that during the 2009-2010 school year, one in 59 children (specifically eight-year olds) with hearing loss were also receiving services for autism; considerably higher, than reported national estimates of one in 91 (Kogan et al. in Pediatrics 124(4):1-8, 2009) and one in 110 (CDC 2007) for hearing children. Significantly more children with profound hearing loss had a comorbid diagnosis of autism than those with milder forms of hearing loss. These results are discussed, while highlighting the need for increased awareness and research in a population that has thus far received little services or attention.

Szymanski, who is deaf, first developed an interest in autism when she worked at Courage North, a summer camp in Lake George, Minnesota. Courage North provided children and adults with a range of disabilities a chance to enjoy the outdoors. It was here that she was first exposed to children and adults with autism, which later set her on her career path. Szymanski received her bachelor's degree in psychology and deaf studies from Western Maryland College and her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Gallaudet University. She has extensive experience in clinics, recreation centers, and schools throughout the country; she has worked with children-deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing-who have developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, challenging behaviors, and intellectual disabilities.

Look for another article by Szymanki on autism and deafness in the spring 2012 edition of the Clerc Center's Odyssey magazine. Here she will provide tips for educators working with deaf students with autism to help create classroom intervention strategies to address some of the challenges they face when working with deaf students with autism. Also, on April 19, Szymanski will host an online webinar for teachers and parents, "Sharing Autism Research on Deaf or Hard of Hearing Students," discussing some key interventions that may work in helping navigating challenges that they face.