Educating Children with Hearing Loss and Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Eric Sherman

Older Brother, Zach, Cole, and Eric (dad)

Older Brother, Zach, Cole, and Eric (dad)

Gallaudet Research Institute’s 2009-2010 Annual Survey estimates that about 40 percent of children with hearing loss exhibit another disability and notes the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be 1 in 59. Early intervention is critical for the development of speech, language, communication skills, and learning. Some families are fortunate to discover their child’s hearing loss at a young age so an early intervention program can be implemented to help their child stay on track with their hearing peers.

What happens when your child is diagnosed with profound to severe hearing loss at 6 months of age, receives his first cochlear implant at age 1½ (second at before his 5th birthday) and spends a couple of years in auditory-verbal therapy (AVT) or speech therapy, but is showing little to no progress?

This was the case with my youngest son. After receiving a second cochlear implant at 1½ and then two years of AVT, my son was nowhere near his hearing peers in communication and language skills. My wife and I knew language development could be a long process, but our gut was telling us that something else was wrong. Our auditory-verbal therapist advised us to seek additional medical evaluations to see if there was something else prohibiting our son’s language development. After having evaluations done, our son at almost 3 years of age was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

Having a child with hearing loss takes lot of work. Add autism to the mix and it is like trying to solve a puzzle without knowing which pieces are in play.

With intensive behavioral and speech therapy over the years, our son, age 11, has done well. He has become more verbal and can certainly communicate his needs and wants. What is difficult is unlocking the doors into his learning style. There is this blurred line between his autism and hearing disability. When our son has difficulty doing schoolwork, we always question whether he is hearing the information, whether he has a problem processing the information, or whether he is just not interested in the material because it has no real meaning to his everyday life.

Our son has been lucky over the past three years having a teacher who is very creative and skillful in engaging her students. But this has not always been the case. My family’s experiences have taught us that the school district needs more information and training on how to educate a child with both hearing loss and ASD. Service providers need to know how to address each disability individually and collectively understand how they impact a child’s overall education. We have a school audiologist who wanted to create a goal for our son where he tells his aide or teacher when his CI processors are not working. This is a reasonable expectation for a child with hearing loss, but when ASD is added to the mix this may be difficult to achieve.

A child with ASD may have to be taught what it means for their processor not to be working, as well as what to do after they determine they are not working. Furthermore, generalization of whether the processor is “working or not working,” “broken,” or “on or off” may be confusing and difficult to understand. Our son believes his processor is “on” if his headpiece was attached to his head. Also, a child with autism may prefer the silence and not notify anyone their processors are off.

The dual diagnosis of hearing loss and ASD has been documented for the past 20 years; however, research and clinical guidelines on how to find and teach young children with this dual diagnosis are sparse. School professionals and educators need more tools and training to better equip the growing number of children afflicted with ASD and hearing loss. Both Advanced Bionics, which makes cochlear implants, and Illinois State University have done work on this issue, calling attention to the need for better diagnostic tools, early intervention, and training of education professionals. Still, significantly more needs to be done.

Eric Sherman is a father of two boys. In addition to advocating for his son and others, he serves as a parent representative on advisory boards on how special education and family support services are implemented in his local school district. To learn more about Eric Sherman visit

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