Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Aaron Shield

Autism Light #204 is Aaron Shield.

Aaron Shield is the Principal Investigator for the Deaf Autism Project at Boston University. In 2010 Aaron Shield earned his Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin and he joined the Psychology Department at Boston University in 2011. Aaron Shield is an Autism Light because of the potential that his research on sign language and autism has shown for helping to improve the lives of deaf children on the spectrum.

Hundreds of families in the United States are impacted with the effects of both autism and deafness. While the latest figures are that autism touches 1 in 88 children, the impact on the deaf community is statistically greater. A recent study by Christen Szymanski and colleagues reported that 1 in 59 deaf children in the Gallaudet Research Institute Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children also carry a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (For Source Information See Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, January, 2012).

Autism Light asked Aaron Shield what motivated him to concentrate his research and study on deaf autism. He provided this meaningful explantion to what inspired him.
I was inspired by the fact that there was a total lack of research on these children. I knew that deaf children were receiving autism diagnoses, but no one was studying how these children were learning sign language. There were no diagnostic or screening instruments adapted for signing children. There were no interventions tailored for their specific needs. So it seemed to me that there was a real need for the research. I then met many families, Deaf and hearing parents who were very enthusiastic and encouraging. I realized that they were counting on me.  
From a research point of view, I was fascinated because I think that studying deaf children with autism can teach us about autism in general, because we can literally see the effects of autism in a visual language. It's a different lens through which to view autism, one which can provide us with valuable information about how kids with autism think and process information. 

Aaron Shield says that one of his goals in his research for the Deaf Autism Project is to "help inform the development of strategies for better diagnosis and intervention with deaf children with autism, a population that up until now has received very little scientific attention (Source). The following is a YouTube video where Aaron Shield explains the need and requirements for participation in this research by member of the deaf autism community.

Research Funding:  The Deaf Autism Project research is funded by a three-year grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one of the National Institutes of Health in the United States (Source). The research is being hosted by the ROADD Center (Research on Autism and Developmental Disorders) at Boston University. The goal for sample size of the study is to include 20 deaf children with autism and compare them to a larger group of about 50 deaf children without autism.

Dissertation: Aaron Shield's dissertation was written on The Signing of Deaf Children With Autism. You can read his complete paper online at this link. Aaron Shield summarizes his methodology, hypothesis, and analysis of his dissertation this way.
In my dissertation, I studied a group of 26 deaf children and adolescents who had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In particular, I analyzed the way that they formed their signs. I had hypothesized that the autistic deficit in theory of mind -- the ability to understand the mental states of others -- might lead to specific kinds of errors in sign language. I found that some of the younger children -- all under the age of 10 -- had a tendency to reverse the direction of their signs, so it appeared that they were signing "backward". This seems to suggest that some children with autism learn signs differently from typically-developing deaf children, and may require different kinds of language interventions than hearing, speaking children.
Other Resources: Aaron Shield wanted to pass on to members of the Deaf Autism Community the following three resources that may provide community support unique to both deafness and autism.
Special thanks to Aaron Shield for leading this unique and important research related to autism in the deaf community.  If you are eligible to participate in his research your partnership can be very helpful. For more information on the Deaf Autism Project contact Aaron Shield at You may also view his profile page at the ROADD Center at

Autism Light honors diverse heroes to the world of autism.

Photo: The photo in this post is used with permission of Aaron Shield.


  1. Love what Alan is doing here, showing people doing good work behind the scenes like Dr. Aaron Shield.

  2. Thank you for your informative post! It gives us a big help and I heard that some of people are looking for the optometrist columbia sc which provides good services for their eye health care.

  3. Can you link the source without having to purchase it? I am attempting to use your source in my annotated bibliography for my Chemistry course and find your research fascinating. I also work in a Spectrum room, so would like to be able to view it for the applications it would assist me with. The children where I work are not deaf, but are nonverbal. We have been slowly working with them on learning sign, and they tend to demonstrate what you had alluded to by sometimes reversing the signs.

    1. I recommend you try to email Dr. Shield at for the answer to this type of question.