Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why are you only looking for deaf children who have deaf parents?

A: Most deaf children have hearing parents – between 90-95% of them. However, sometimes these children are not exposed to ASL very early in childhood, and this can result in language delays or other cognitive delays. Since we are interested in finding out how autism specifically affects ASL acquisition, it is best to only study deaf children who have been exposed to sign since birth. That way we can be sure that any abnormalities we find are due to autism, and not due to late language exposure. However, the information we discover through our research can then be applied to all deaf children, regardless of whether they have deaf or hearing parents.

Q: Can children with autism learn ASL?

A: Autism is a spectrum, meaning that it affects every child differently. Some children can acquire fluent language, while others do not acquire language at all. We believe that visual communication is always the best option for children who do not hear, and thus support teaching ASL to deaf children with autism. However, there are many other techniques and technologies that may also help a child with autism. Some people use pictures to help communicate, or iPad apps.

Q: Are the researchers hearing or deaf?

A: The Principal Investigator, Aaron Shield, is hearing, and the Research Assistant, Tory Sampson, is Deaf. We seek collaboration from members of the Deaf community, especially parents and teachers, because we believe this research can help develop tools for improving communication and diagnosis of autism in deaf children. We hope that we can “give back” to the Deaf community once this research is finished by informing the Deaf community about our findings, and developing better instruments and interventions for deaf children with autism.

Q: Do more deaf children have autism than hearing children?

A: It is hard to be certain if autism happens more frequently to deaf children than hearing children. One recent study found that 1 in 59 deaf children had an autism diagnosis, which is higher than the most recent figure of 1 in 88 children in the general population. Either way, more and more children are being diagnosed with autism each year. This research seeks to address the needs of this growing population of children.

Q: What is autism?

A: Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts three areas: 1) social skills, 2) communication and language, and 3) overly intense focus, interests, or repetitive or stereotyped behaviors. Typically, children with autism are diagnosed before the age of 3, though sometimes deaf children are diagnosed later than that due to a lack of appropriate diagnostic instruments. Autism is a spectrum, which means that its symptoms can range from very mild to very severe. Each child with autism is different.

Q: What causes autism?

A: We do not know for sure what causes autism. Scientists have found a number of genes that are involved in autism, suggesting that at least some parts of autism are inherited from parents. It is possible that there are also environmental factors. However, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Q: Can autism be cured?

A: There is no cure for autism. However, early intervention can improve autism symptoms dramatically. If you suspect that your child has autism, it is best to have an evaluation as early as possible so that treatment can begin.

Q: How do I know if my child has autism?

A: There is no blood test or genetic test for autism yet. It must be diagnosed through observation of behavior by a clinician. Typically, parents notice that their children’s behavior seems “odd” in certain ways that interfere with normal social and communicative development. Children might avoid eye contact or fail to engage in normal social interaction. They also might exhibit strange body movements, such as spinning or flapping their arms.