Monday, April 20, 2009

The Earlier The Better

Ashley has been a student in our school district for 10 years. And for 10 years I have had to fight to get her the support she needed to appropriately develop a communication system. The fight has been exhausting, but it has been worth it because Ashley is a fluent signer now. But not all parents have the ability or the resources to fight the battles that are emotionally and physically exhausting.

Knowing this, I was excited to hear about a new study concerning communication for children who are deafblind.

A recently completed five-year study, conducted through the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at the University of Kansas, adapted the gestures and noises used by typically developing infants to form a communication system for deaf-blind children.

The researchers had to find a way to make the children want to communicate a need or desire, said Susan Bashinski, a principal investigator who is now an associate special education professor at East Carolina University.

For example, they made a child aware that a toy was nearby, either by touch or by using vibrating toys. Then, they would teach a child a gesture to indicate he or she wanted the toy.

"Eventually, they have an 'aha' moment where they understand that they are not just a passive member of the environment, 'I can do this action, then you can do this and interact with me,'" Bashinski said.

Currently, many deaf-blind children barely communicate until they are old enough to start learning sign language. But they often struggle with that because they didn't first learn the gestures and noises that are the foundation for communication in normally developing infants.

Those gestures and noises have been successfully adapted to help developmentally disabled children who can see and hear, a method called Prelinguistic Milieu Teaching. The new study adapted that method for nine Kansas children between the ages of 3 to 7 with varying degrees of deaf-blindness.

Working at the children's schools, researchers sought to increase the number of times the child communicated per minute and the number of gestures. The results will be published this month in the journal Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities.

The study bolsters earlier research on the importance of prelinguistic communication and emphasizes that deaf-blind children need intensive one-on-one work to begin learning communication, said Kat Stremel Thomas, project coordinator for the National Consortium of Deaf-Blindness, which supports states' work to communicate with deaf-blind children.

She said further study needs to determine if the children move on to pick up more complex communication skills. And, she said, some way needs to be found to share what was learned with those who work every day with deaf-blind children.

"All brain research shows that the younger kids are when they get appropriate intervention, the better the outcome will be, especially in literacy and communication," she said.

Did you get that, school district? The earlier the better. If you didn’t get it, don’t worry, I’ll be sure to keep reminding you!

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