The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

The communication abilities of deaf children with autism

Tanya Denmark, Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL), University College London

Research for: PhD Sept 2007 - April 2011

Funding by Economic and Social Research Council

Project background

Normally hearing children with ASD are often reported to have a lack of interest in others, particularly looking at faces, as a result of this they manifest difficulties understanding and using facial expressions compared to typically developing controls. Deaf children, however often show advantages with the processing of the face due to the fact that they need to look to the face more to communicate and due to the presence of linguistic facial expressions in British Sign Language.

Deaf children with ASD and typically developing age and language matched deaf controls were compared on a number of comprehension and production measures looking at the use of the face in BSL. The emotional facial expression production and comprehension measures consisted of elicitation of a BSL narrative, a sentence repetition test and a signed sentence to emotion word matching task. In addition to emotional facial expression use, three linguistic facial expression structures were investigated: questions, negation and adverbials. The linguistic facial expression production and comprehension measures consisted of picture descriptions, signed sentence to picture matching tasks and a question-answer game.

Deaf children with ASD performed comparably to deaf controls at comprehending and producing facial expressions across many of the tasks, they did not show an impairment with faces overall. Rather they showed specific differences with the comprehension and production of some emotional facial expressions and the comprehension and production of adverbial linguistic structures. These findings seem to suggest that facial expressions in BSL, which have more of an emotional component, or those that have overlaps with cognitive impairments associated with ASD are difficult for deaf individuals with ASD to use relative to those which are largely linguistic.

For further information contact Tanya Denmark