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The Autism Network for Deaf/Hard of Hearing
and Blind/Visually Impaired
August 2015

Autism Research Institute
4182 Adams Avenue
San Diego, California 92116 USA



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Welcome to the summer edition of our e-newsletter. We hope you will find this issue enlightening, from both an intellectual and practical viewpoint. 

Please let us know if you have any suggestions regarding future issues of this e-newsletter. Email: email us

Best Regards, Steve Edelson, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Autism Research Institute 
Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and Autism: Common 
Features of Spectrum Diseases

In a recent paper published in The Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, Borchert and Fink describe the similarities between optic nerve hypoplasia (ONH) and autism. ONH is a common cause of ocular blindness and visual impairment in young children. The condition involves underdeveloped optic nerves as well as neurological abnormalities. The authors of the paper argue that like autism, ONH is not a single condition; it is a spectrum disorder, with a wide range of severity in both symptoms and outcomes. 

There is a high incidence of autism and autism-like symptoms among children with ONH, including social and communication challenges as well as repetitive behaviors. Specific behaviors include echolalia, "sing-song" vocal intonation, obsessions, non-ocular repetitive behaviors, and hypersensitivity to various sounds, textures, tastes, and smells. In addition, these children suffer from gastrointestinal problems, seizures, and sleep dysfunction.  

The authors argue that autism and ONH may even share a common neurodevelopmental origin. For example, individuals with ONH and ASD children have a smaller corpus callosum (which connects the two hemispheres of the brain) compared to controls. There is also a much higher than normal rate of epilepsy in both groups, i.e., 3% in the general population, 12% in the ONH group, and 21% in the ASD group.  

Borchert and Fink have developed a survey to uncover possible prenatal environmental risk factors, including geographic and temporal clusters. See:

Life after High School for Those with 
Autism Who Are Deaf

The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) is an information-based service provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Dr. Margery Miller, a professor at Gallaudet University, and Dr. Sumie Funayama have co-authored a six-page article for ERIC to aid parents and professionals in helping children with autism who are deaf transition after high school. The article discusses the challenges of obtaining appropriate educational placements and adequate support services. 

The article contains specific guidelines to assist in choosing the "best fit" program. For example, here is the first guideline: "The process may take longer than you think. Begin searching for programs for deaf adults with autism and other developmental disabilities while your child is in junior high or the first years of high school." 

The article also provides tips on finding the most suitable vocational training, career coaching, and residential placement options for an adult with autism who is deaf.

Drs. Miller and Funayama also address the question of which disability should be designated as the primary disability: Is the child deaf, with autism-or is the child autistic, with hearing loss/deafness? The authors' answer is more pragmatic than philosophical. Coding "deafness" as the primary disability allows support from experts in sign language, which would be much harder to access if autism were to be coded as primary.  

 Fourteen-Year-Old Who Has Autism and Is Blind Sang the National Anthem for more than 30,000 at Red Sox Game

Christopher Duffley made the most of his moment in the spotlight. The teen, who has autism and is blind, performed the national anthem at Fenway Park before a recent Red Sox/Indians game.  After Duffley was introduced, the crowd roared to greet him, and his boyish excitement was clearly visible. Then, with his beautiful baritone voice, he sang the familiar opening words, "Oh say, can you see." Once he began, he delivered a memorable version of the song. Once he finished, the crowd gave him a rousing ovation. The young man made his family and community proud, and the Fenway fans were clearly moved by what they had just witnessed.

Teaching Braille to Children with Autism

Natalie Shaheen spent 13 years teaching students with autism before she became a teacher of students who have autism and are blind. Natalie herself is legally blind, and she feels that it is imperative for her students to learn such skills as Braille and the abacus. 

Ms. Shaheen has also incorporated other elements found in a typical, non-blind autism classroom, such as schedules, well-defined work areas, and token charts, modifying them to include Braille and other tactile symbols.  

In addition, Ms. Shaheen writes stories in Braille, and she illustrates these stories with real objects and tactile graphics. You can learn more about Ms. Shaheen's teaching efforts at:
Gaining an Understanding Through Music

Adam Ockelford has a Ph.D. in music, and teaches "musical understanding" to children with special needs. He is also well-known as the teacher for Derek Paravicini (see picture above), who is a renowned musical savant with autism and is blind. Derek, like many musical savants, has an extraordinary ability to play music by ear. He is able to memorize a song after hearing it once, and has memorized thousands of songs. He can also transpose the songs into any key, and he can play a given tune in any number of genres, such as waltz, polka, and ragtime.

Ockelford describes the similarities between how children who are blind and children who have autism experience the world. He notes that they often have limited and/or impaired social skills.  According to Ockelford, both groups spend much time by themselves; and as a result, they are keenly aware of sounds and tend to process all sounds in musical terms. For example, they may strike an object, such as glass or metal, and then listen closely to the resulting sound. Furthermore, both groups tend to be fascinated with household sounds such as vacuum cleaners and tea kettles, and these sounds have inherent musical components. Thus, the child with autism and the child who is blind may not be concerned with the function of the vacuum cleaner and tea kettle; rather, they are stimulated by the tonality of their sounds. 

Because of their musical orientation, Ockelford argues that both groups are focused on pure tones. This is not surprising, given that absolute or perfect pitch is much more common among children who are blind (4 in 10) and children with autism (1 in 20) than in the general population (1 in 10,000). Furthermore, these individuals are able to communicate with others and express themselves by relying on a musical language-that is, they reproduce what they hear. 

and  (20-minute "TED Talk" with Adam Ockelford and Derek Paravicini playing piano)