My boyfriend is doing his PhD at the University of Oxford and every now and then I go to a Formal dinner at his college. I feel like royalty as I gorge on five course meals followed by port and cheese (the good stuff).

I am certainly not an academic and I sometimes have to look at my boyfriend for support when other students explain what they’re working on as their theses are alien to me. I do however, have a specialised subject that I can engage in with others and that is ‘deafness’. I know a lot about: deaf history, culture, sign language and deaf education. It is not something people are usually informed on.

Last week, I was talking to a guest of another PhD student at the college. He showed interest in what I do and asked relevant and interesting questions such as: ‘how old are children when they can start to sign?’ and ‘how do you become a sign language interpreter’? It was not until he asked ‘can you tell me why Deaf children are usually autistic?’ that I was slightly taken aback.

Deafness is absolutely not a learning disability. Of course there are deaf children who have additional needs but, there is nothing about being born deaf that means you will have difficulties with learning. However, deaf children may appear to have additional needs due to their delay in language.

As a hearing child you are accessing language all the time without realising and will automatically pick up words and what is happening around your environment faster than a deaf child. A deaf child is not immediately exposed to this and as a result may be mute until later on in childhood. Some autistic children are mute because they are overwhelmed by life and having to juggle their anxieties, going to school and maintaining relationships that it is too much to speak as well. This can be confused with deaf children seeming to be autistic if they do not have language to communicate.

To deaf children eye contact is very important. Without any eye contact the information will be missed. A deaf child will constantly be asked to watch in class because they need to. A hearing child can listen and write at the same time and still get access to information. If a deaf person wants to write down notes they will miss the next part of the lesson. It is tiring and hard to keep watching the entire day. In regards to eye contact, autistic children find it hard to remain keeping it. This could present itself as a symptom of autism in deaf children because of the lack of eye contact.

I asked the man why he thought this was the case for deaf children. He explained that when he was at school there was a deaf child who came from a hearing family and had a brother who was autistic. He said that at the time, he just thought his peer was autistic because he behaved differently, didn’t like looking at people and seemed to be very strong in maths. It is possible that this boy was copying autistic behaviour from his brother as that was the only example he had of another child for most of his life.

Some autistic children will have outbursts and then ‘get their way’ even though the outburst isn’t because they are naughty but, struggling to handle life situations. As a child, if you see this happen, then you are likely to behave in a way that results in you getting what you want. Who could blame them? It is a very clever thing to be able to recognise this behavioural pattern – shouting and screaming can result in getting what you want.

What is the reason for this behaviour? What was the communication like with his family? Was he lacking the appropriate communication at home to be able to learn and be taught social skills? For example, if you’re not taught you should not go into a grocery shop and eat the produce while going through the aisles, then how would you know not to do that? If the child was ‘teaching himself’ how to behave then it is unsurprising he would pick up unusual habits.

It is said that autistic children are very strong in a particular area, maybe maths or building things. Sometimes these children are referred to as geniuses. Maths is very visual and there are deaf children who are strong in maths because you learn by watching and remembering patterns. Lots of deaf children work better from watching examples first which also includes art and P.E. subjects.

Could the fact that he was living a socially isolated life at home impact his behaviour?Frustrations and no communication would have a significant impact on his behaviour. Of course, I am not suggesting this is what happened to the child, I do not have that information. I am pointing out a possible reality for some deaf children. It could be that this child really was autistic, yet he is not autistic because he is deaf.

Apparently, we are all somewhere on the autistic spectrum. There are a range of traits. I think it’s a good thing to be quirky and different. Life would be so boring if we were all the same.

I am using autism as the example here due to the nature of the conversation I had, but it suggests how people are so quick to assume someone has a learning disability due to not understanding them (culture or family situations etc.). It comes down to not being educated and informed. Just because a way of behaving does not seem ‘normal’, it does not mean that it is wrong. We are so quick in today’s society to label people because we think it makes us feel better to have an answer when really, we are all just different.

Emma Colton – emma.colton@hotmail.co.uk

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