Opinion: Autism and Deafness

When people ask me to describe my Autism in the simplest way possible, I tell them:

“It’s the opposite from being Deaf.”

What do I mean? Autism is the inability to filter information, we do not have the ‘cocktail party effect’ so cannot separate various noises and conversations. This means that in a crowded setting we may as well be Deaf. I have also noticed that the way Autistic and Deaf people speak is remarkably similar: sometimes too loud, or too quiet, or with too much of a monotone.

When you read the biographies of Autistic children, you are struck by how often they are mistakenly diagnosed as Deaf.

Dr Maite Ferrin, Consultant Psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health said:

“Poor social skills may be a potential sign of ASD but does not on its own indicate ASD. People with hearing difficulties can have language deprivation that eventually leads to poor social skills, however the causes are different to those with ASD and language deprivation for people with hearing difficulties is preventable. A simple hearing test can be helpful to ascertain whether a child who presents isolated and with poor social skills has any hearing difficulties.

On the other hand, people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of their senses can be over or under sensitive, or even both at different times.”

Dr Sarah Lister Brook works for the National Autistic Society as Clinical Director at the Lorna Wing Centre. She explained why the two conditions are often confused:

“The reason why people commonly think a child is Deaf when they actually have Autism is because they will not be paying attention to verbal communication, not because they can’t hear the words or sounds, it’s usually because they’re not realising that someone wants their attention.”

I asked her how we can tell them apart:

“It would require the same processes as any diagnostic assessment as in a very robust authoritative developmental history taken from parents, observations of the child in different settings, interacting with their peers as well as interacting with adults. Obviously if a child is Deaf one would need to ensure that the professionals involved are able to communicate with them through signs. Fundamentally it’s a developmental history that would provide the framework to make a differential diagnosis.

We are better now but there are many Deaf children who also have Autism and are overlooked. We know that a young Deaf person has a greater chance of having Autism too, because the conditions that cause the Deafness may also cause the Autism through changes in the brain.”

Obviously it’s not good being misdiagnosed, but for Autistic children, deafness is the least harmful diagnosis according to Sarah:

“The learning environment in Deaf schools will be far more visually oriented which could be really helpful.”

Although the two conditions are different, both Deaf and Autistic children do well by being provided with visual timetables, clear instructions, Sign Language and above all, not being forced into mainstream schools.

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.