What is Deaf Applied Behavior Analysis? And Why Should You Care?

You might be wondering what is it? And particularly why Deaf Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? Isn’t ABA adaptable to all sorts of populations? And sure, that’s true. But it doesn’t go far enough to meet the needs of Deaf children, especially Deaf Autistic children in teaching communication, sign language, daily living skills, providing access and so much more.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific discipline that uses the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors. It is a systematic approach to understanding and changing behavior. The philosophy of ABA is to identify environmental factors that influence behavior, and to change those factors.

ABA practitioners work with individuals of all ages to address a variety of issues, including developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, cognitive disabilities, and behavioral issues. ABA is also used in businesses and organizations to improve employee productivity and customer satisfaction.

ABA therapy has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of issues, and research continues to support its efficacy. ABA therapists use a variety of techniques to help their clients improve their behavior. These techniques may include positive reinforcement, modeling, and shaping. ABA practitioners also work with caregivers and family members to teach them how to support their loved ones in their treatment goals.

Is ABA just for hearing children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

In recent years, ABA has become synonymous with “Autism Spectrum Disorder” and “Autism” therapy. This is largely because insurance companies and Medicaid have a mandate in many states to pay for ABA therapy and services for those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, behavior analysis can and does benefit everyone! These strategies can be used with children and adults, whether they are hearing or deaf.

Most programs and resources in the community are focused on hearing children. But Deaf children exist too! Roughly 30-40% of all Deaf and hard of hearing children struggle with challenging behavior. That’s over 100,000 children in the U.S. alone! (And no, it’s not because they’re Deaf.) This is a rate 2-3 times higher than hearing children. But they are half as likely to receive behavioral supports or therapy to meet their needs compared to hearing children.

That’s part of what we do here at Signs of Communication, LLC. We are bringing awareness and training to parents, caregivers and professionals that just because their child experiences behavioral challenges in addition to being deaf… that’s not the end of the road. Deafness is NOT a life sentence to problem behavior and we can use the science of behavioral analysis to teach communication skills and so much more.

What is DEAF ABA?

I’m so glad you asked. First, it is NOT simple using regular ABA with deaf kids. And that’s because deaf and hard of hearing children cannot be taught as though they are hearing children who can’t hear. When teachers and therapists attempt to use a curriculum that is not meant for deaf children, they may or may not see success. That’s because deaf students do not always learn or think about things in the same way hearing children do- it isn’t about their ears or even if they use ASL or spoken language.

Deaf children simply experience the world in an entirely different way than hearing children. Their development is different. Their understanding of the world, their ability to communicate, their support needs, sensory interactions… all of these are simply different. Even with interpreters or even in deaf school programs, we still see challenges and difficulties if the curriculum itself does not account for the unique needs of deaf children.

According to Dr. Marc Marschark, “One thing we found in our early studies is that despite what some people claim, deaf students’ difficulties in mainstreamed classrooms could not be blamed on interpreters […] We started realizing some differences between deaf and hearing students: how their memory works, the organization of their knowledge, and their learning strategies are simply different. So for mainstream teachers, you can’t assume the deaf students coming into your class know the same things or learn the same way as your hearing students. For example, deaf people’s visual-spatial memories are better than hearing people’s. But sequential memory isn’t as good.”

So why do we use the exact same methodologies and pedagogies to teach deaf children? It simply doesn’t make sense.

Deaf ABA uses the framework of Deaf Gain to inform our understanding of how to work with deaf children. “Deaf Gain” is the belief that deafness does not have to be viewed through the lens of deficit, but rather a unique difference that can be harnessed for individual and community growth. For example, without deaf people, we would not have the “football huddle”.

Without William Stokoe’s investigation into American Sign Language and the recognition that it is a real language, would we have the same support and understanding for Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC) devices as we do now? Would sign language be taught to anyone who is not deaf themselves? Research has grown in leaps and bounds… all thanks to the contributions of the Deaf. The world is richer because there are Deaf and hard of hearing people in it.

This philosophy has been gaining traction in recent years, and it has implications for the way we think about deaf education. Deaf Gain suggests that we need to shift our focus from remediation to enrichment. Rather than trying to eliminate all differences between deaf and hearing students, we should strive to foster deaf students’ strengths and build on their unique perspectives.

Deaf ABA presents unique opportunities to learn about human behavior, language development and the way we function in the world. Research has the potential to understand so much more about mental, behavioral and linguistic development for anyone who is interested in learning.

But research has not gone far enough – yet! We need to be creating and teaching resources for families in ASL (or another sign language) that meets the needs of Deaf children. That meets the needs of a Deaf Autistic child. That supports language development. That accounts for the unique cultural and access needs of this population. That provides their school with the support they need to teach these children. That Deaf children and their parents should not be forced into impossible choices — do they pick a school where their deaf child’s autism and behavioral needs will be met… but there is no accessibility or sign language? Or do they pick a school where their deaf child will have access to sign language, but that has no experience teaching an autistic child?

Deaf ABA is the future. When we create programs and protocols to meet the support needs of Deaf children – Autistic or not – their skills acquisition, language development and ability to communicate will grow. We believe this is possible and we have started it here at Signs of Communication, LLC. Will you join us?

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