A Unique Program for the Hearing Impaired: The Program Was Created in 2010 in Response to a Marked Increase in the Percentage of Students Coming to the William Center with a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

The Exceptional Parent, May 2012 | Go to article overview

A Unique Program for the Hearing Impaired: The Program Was Created in 2010 in Response to a Marked Increase in the Percentage of Students Coming to the William Center with a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder


A studious teenager stands in front of a wall-sized map of the United States, carefully copying the name of each state from a worksheet onto the brightly colored atlas. Like any high school student, he periodically looks away from his assignment to see what his buddies are up to, flashes a bright smile at a pretty girl, then checks to see if the teacher is watching. She is. With a firm flurry of gestures, she silently coaxes him to finish his work and then get ready for lunch.

This easy-going young man is one of seven students enrolled in the nation's first residential educational programs specifically designed for autistic children who are physically or functionally deaf. The program is being offered at the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing's (VCDHH) William Center, which welcomes deaf students with behavioral issues to its historic 200-acre Austine School for the Deaf campus in Brattleboro, Vermont.

The Deaf-Autism program serves children ages eight to 22 who need more intense clinical and educational programming than day schools are able to provide. Using a specialized curriculum designed at VCDHH, masters-level staff specialists assess the needs of each child and develop individualized education plans and goals.

The program was created in 2010 as a response to a marked increase in the percentage of students coming to the William Center with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Many of them had come from other residential deaf schools that were not equipped to handle the needs of autistic students, or from autism day programs that were tailored to children who can hear.

"Our population mirrors the rest of the population," says VCDHH director Robert Carter. "We're seeing more kids with autism in all communities, including the deaf."

What makes this program particularly enabling for autistic and deaf students is its integration within the picturesque Austine campus. Recent studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology indicate that deaf students, regardless of their additional disabilities, perform best when being taught directly by an experienced teacher of the deaf. Students not only receive this kind of instruction in the autism-specific classroom, but also in mainstream opportunities within the Austine School for the Deaf community where students have daily access to a language-rich environment in which all teachers, staff, and students communicate in American Sign Language.

The Deaf-Autism program itself is housed in a brand new facility specifically created to soothe and support autistic children with its own classrooms, residential unit, and dedicated staff. Operating 12 months a year, seven days a week, the program's services are designed to serve all areas of a student's life: educational, clinical, and social.

Students are taught in small classes that are mindful of the academic requirements set by each child's home school district. The classroom environment is bolstered by intensive support from occupational physical and speech and language therapists, along with technology that enhances behavioral interventions and communication options.

Interspersed with classroom learning, full-time counselors use a variety of counseling and therapeutic approaches that may include individual and group therapy. Students also have access to the Austine School's comprehensive services for speech and audiology, psychological testing and evaluation, and medical and health-related care.

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"Each student has unique sensory, academic, social, and emotional needs - they're all 100% different," says program director Ann Shea. "And those needs will change within the day. We're onstantly reinventing and re-assessing each child's sensory diet to find what works."

What works for some students is often a far cry from communication methods found in a typical classroom. And at VCDHH's Deaf-Autism program, that's just fine. …

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