KU researchers win grant to help deaf-blind children communicate

Researchers at Kansas University have been given $1.25 million to find ways to help some of the nation’s most isolated children communicate better with those around them.

Project co-directors Susan Bashinski and Nancy Brady, both of the Life Span Institute, received a U.S. Department of Education grant for a five-year project to adapt and test special therapies for communicating with children who are deaf, blind and have cognitive disabilities. There are about 12,000 such children nationwide.

“Children with deaf-blindness often have little or no communication — no way to control their world,” said Bashinski, assistant professor of research at the institute.

To help the children, researchers will rely on intensive one-on-one instruction to identify touch or object cues that could be used to expand each child’s range of communication.

“We might give a child a card with a piece of rubber tread on it that she could use to ask for a ride on a tire swing. Or a backpack strap could be used to signal that it was time to go home,” Bashinski said.

Brady, associate professor of research at the institute, said the research team would try to recruit 27 children, ages 3 to 7, for the project. Eighteen will be from northeast Kansas, with three from the Wichita area and six in Indiana.

Their testing sample will be small by normal academic standards, but there are only about 134 children in Kansas with hearing, vision and cognitive disabilities.

Brady said researchers would work to adapt and package for blind-deaf-cognitive disabled children a communication strategy called Prelinguistic Milieu Training (PMT). It was developed in the 1990s for children grappling exclusively with cognitive impairments.

PMT emulates what typically developing babies do, including grabbing, pointing and touching. This exchange with others is the beginning of intentional communication, Brady said.

For the study, an adult will follow a child’s lead in an activity that the child enjoys; for example, rocking on a toy horse. The adult will look for cues that the child wants to continue rocking.

“Eventually, the child may learn to request the activity by producing the gesture,” Brady said.

She said the quest would be to put in place building blocks of a communication system that could be expanded over time.

If adapted PMT is effective — preliminary results should be available in a year — the strategy will be shared with teachers and clinicians.

“Professionals may adopt PMT relatively quickly because of the urgent need for effective strategies,” Bashinski said.

Children grappling with this set of disabilities often become frustrated by obstacles to communication, Brady said.

“They can develop some behaviors that can be described as challenging,” she said.

Brady said researchers would focus initially on children living in northeast Kansas. To qualify for the study, children must be 3 to 7 years old with speech and hearing loss and not use a speech or an augmentative communication system to interact with others.