The Use of Techniques to Enhance Language Acquisition in Pre-school Hearing Autistic Children to Enhance Language Acquisition in Pre-school Deaf Children

Action research Project


Dina Augustus


In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Masters of Science degree (Special Education)

University of Tennessee (Knoxville)

April 3, 1998


Literature Review

Children with autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Hearing-Impaired children share a common characteristic in that they need assistance in communication and English language development. Both groups also have additional characteristics that isolate them but for different reasons. For example, autistic children may have language concepts but may not know how to express themselves. Hearing-Impaired children, on the other hand, may not have access to English language and for this reason may not be able to communicate orally because they do not hear the language. Thus, both groups are effected by a communication dysfunction but for different reasons. Even though the causes of language problems are different some of the same techniques can be used for both groups to assist in enhancing language development. At a recent conference at the University of Tennessee in 1997 doctor Amy M. Wetherby a professor in the department of communication disorders at Florida State University, conducted a workshop on enhancing communication with autistic children. In her workshop, she presented findings from her ongoing research in the area of communication with children who are autistic and have pervasive developmental disorders. Her research findings along with the literature on deaf children's language development suggest that the communication problems are similar in both groups (Wetherby, 1997; Matson, 1994; McAnally& Rose& Quigley, 1987; Paul&Quigley, 1994).

In her presentation, Wetherby (1997) provided a list of techniques (appendix B) that could be used to enhance communicative competence in autistic children. These techniques are designed to coincide with particular stages of children's language development. They have been devised to help children with autism become effective communicators. By contrast, research on deaf children with autism is unavailable. This unavailability coupled with Dr. Wetherby's presentation suggest that techniques used to enhance communication skills for students with autism may prove effective for students who have a hearing loss. I choose to use one of Wetherby's techniques to test this tacit theory. I also believed that the lack of literature on autistic deaf children could be traced to the fact that researchers and educators tend to focus on deafness as the primary disability in their academic achievement. Thus, my research question involves an examination of how language acquisition occurs in deaf children. Specifically, my research question became:

Can techniques used to enhance language acquisition in preschool hearing autistic children be used to enhance language acquisition in preschool deaf children?


The researcher chose a journal format in which techniques were specified and descriptions were provided about how these techniques were used to enhance communication skills. Strengths and weaknesses of these techniques with the participant are also described.

One technique is the establishment of reliable means to initiate interaction or bring attention to self at the beginning of communication is a key to know how to communicate your intent to another individual (Wetherby, 1997). This technique used with autistic children to try to get children to be socially interactive involves getting children to expand what they say. The idea is to get them to initiate the conversation. Many times, as teachers we are chasing the children to get them to communicate. With autistic children, it is important to get them to initiate. Many deaf children have a difficult initiating conversation. If the child is playing with the train set a teacher might begin a conversation by saying "What are you playing with? Where is the train going?" Thereby teaching the child how to initiate by being a model. Sometimes when you are talking to a child you can also imitate what the child should respond and have the child imitate the response.

I chose this technique to research because it has been proven to be effective with hearing autistic preschool students (Wetherby, 1997) I chose to have this technique implemented by a preschool hearing impaired child's regular classroom teacher. I then observed and recorded how the student's expressive language was affected. The results of the observation were recorded in a journal format. Informed consent was obtained from the parents of the participant (See appendix A)

The student I observed was a five-year-old, White, hard of hearing male. He was placed in a special education classroom for language and speech delayed children. This is his first year in the classroom. The only language technique used in the past with this child was verbo-tonal. This technique involves a combination of hand and body movements in conjunction with amplification to assist deaf students to produce speech. The student possesses a lot of vocabulary but he does not know how to use the vocabulary in a normal conversation. When asked to identify something, he will respond appropriately. When playing with classmates, he does not use vocabulary that he produces as single words. Also, he does not respond appropriately in conversations. For example, he does not initiate conversation. When the teacher wants a response, she has to tell him to respond. In many cases the student imitates the teacher's response.

Prior to initiating the study, I demonstrated the technique to the classroom teacher, who has a degree in Early Childhood Special Education. The White, female teacher has been teaching preschool classroom special education for twenty years. I also answered the teachers' questions about how the technique should be implemented. I explained how to get student to initiate conversation by withholding objects. This allows the student to have to ask for object. I also explained to the teacher about how to model turn taking is to show him how to communicate student's intent to another. I observed the student twelve days later. I observed him for 45 minutes during free play and during a 30-minute lesson.


After use of the technique suggested by Wetherby (1997) by the teacher, the researcher identified the following findings: During free play, the student was engaged in conversation with another student without the assistance of the teacher. The student initiated conversation with the teacher. The student took a book to the teacher and said, "look book."

After free play, the students sat on mat for a short discussion about the days of the week and the weather. The student answered the questions appropriately without a prompt. For example, when asked by the teacher, "what is today?" the student responded correctly by saying, "Thursday". The teacher followed up by saying, "yes, very good _____ today is Thursday."

Later in the day, I observed a structured lesson plan. The lesson topic was where animals live. The teacher passed out pictures of different animals. Each student received a picture of an animal except the student being observed. The student raised his hand but gave no verbalization. The teacher made "eye contact" with student. She waited but there was no response from student. The teacher continued passing out pictures. The student then said the teacher's name. The teacher looked at him. The student said "I want animal". The teacher gave him a picture of the animal. The teacher went around the circle asking each student what animal, he/she had and where did the animal live. They had a choice of three places. In the center of the circle was a picture of the three choices-woods, grasslands, or farm. The teacher asked the student what he had. His response was "bird". The teacher then asked where the bird lived. The student stated "the bird on tree," which was an acceptable answer for the woods. The teacher then modeled the correct sentence and the student imitated the answer "the bird lives in the tree". The teacher continued around the circle until the student's next turn. The teacher asked what he had in his hand. The student said, "cat." The teacher said, "where does a cat live?" The student responded by saying "barn". The teacher said, "I put the cat on the farm". The student was told to imitate the responds "I put the cat on the farm". The teacher said that there was a barn on the farm; the barn is where the animals live but the place is called a farm. The teacher was a language model for student,


Although preliminary, the data indicate that the technique implemented for this student was successful. After 12 days of implementing this technique, the student demonstrated the ability to initiate conversation. For example, during his free play the student engaged in conversation with classmates without the teacher's assistance. The student also initiated conversation with the teacher. He took the book to the teacher and said, "Look book". He seemed to show improvement in expressing his desires and communicating them to the teacher after the technique was implemented.


As the researcher, I did not actually see the day to day implementation of the technique; this could be a limitation of the study. The newness of the technique could result in the change. The classroom teacher I used experience in early childhood special education could have assisted in the technique working.

The study implies the use of other techniques could prove successful with deaf children.


The study raises interesting questions for future research. For example, could other techniques be used to help assist hearing impaired students with communication. Perhaps, more investigation into the techniques needs to be conducted to determine their usefulness with deaf children. This study has implications for additional studies in both the autistic and deaf education fields. As the researcher I would like to see a future study which compares two separate preschool deaf classrooms with the same teacher initiating Wetherby's techniques.


Gerlach, E. (1993). Autism Treatment Guide. Oregon: Four Leaf Press.

Matson, J. (1994). Autism in Children and Adults; Etiology, Assessment, and intervention. California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company

McAnally, P., & Rose, S., & Quigley. S. (1987). Language Learning Practices with Deaf Children. Austin: Pro-ed.

Paul, P., & Quigley, S. (1994). Language and Deafness. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, Inc.


Wetherby, A. (1997) Best practices for Enhancing Communication and Language for Children with Autism and Pervasive Development Disorders. Florida State University