Program launched for deaf, autistic students

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BRATTLEBORO -- As the number of children with autism continues to grow, so does the number of deaf young people diagnosed with the developmental brain disorder, according to Robert Carter, president of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The center has responded by launching the nation's first deaf-autism program, which started classes Aug. 30.

"We use a lot of the same approaches in our regular curriculum," Carter said of the new program. "We adapted them so they are more suited for deaf autistic children."

VCDHH is a Vermont-based, statewide non-profit organization currently serving 625 deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Vermont and southern New Hampshire.

There are currently eight students from all over the country, ages 11 to 17, enrolled in the new deaf-autism program.

"It's very exciting," said Carter. "It's a great group of kids we have now, and we've already seen progress just because they are in an environment where they have access to communication."

The $2 million program was funded in part by several grants, the most recent of which was a $4,000 grant from the Turrell Fund.

"We are grateful to the Turrell Fund," said Carter. "Generous contributions like this one will enable this initiative to expand and allow us to measure outcomes, document best practices and share the results across the United States."

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In the next few years, VCDHH expects the program to grow to accommodate as many as 20 students.

"We're going to take it incrementally so we don't grow too fast," Carter said. "It's difficult to staff (the deaf-autism program), so we want to take students as we are sure we have the appropriate staffing."

Carter said there are two teachers for the program, and both were already members of the VCDHH staff.

"They had interest in this area, and we provided them with additional training," he explained.

The new curriculum gives the students the ability to communicate. In the past, Carter said, deaf autistic students would be put in a deaf program that's not equipped to deal with autistic children, or visa versa.

Prior to coming to VCDHH, most of the currently enrolled students were in autistic programs for hearing children, where typically the staff are learning to use language at the same time as the students are, Carter said.

"By creating a program that really addresses both needs, we're not dealing with the frustration of trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole," Carter said. "The biggest thing we see when they first come in is that their language is very limited, and then they start picking it up right away."

While the focus is largely on teaching, one of the program's other objectives is to conduct innovative research that develops effective education methods for students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and to disseminate findings widely in order to benefit all ASD-diagnosed students, both hearing and deaf, who respond best to non-auditory communication.

Jaime Cone can be reached at jcone@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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