Meaningful gestures: Helping children with deaf-blindness

Meaningful gestures: Helping children with deaf-blindness

She wouldn’t describe it as an “ah-ha” moment as depicted in the movie, The Miracle Worker, when Annie Sullivan finally makes Helen Keller understand that the word she is spelling in Helen’s hand means water. But Nancy Brady, who with Susan Bashinski, developed a successful gesture- based communication strategy for children with deaf-blindness witnessed many quieter but nevertheless deeply gratifying moments.

Brady, assistant professor of speech-language- hearing, and Bashinski, Life Span Institute research assistant professor, are concluding a five-year Department of Education-funded study of nine Kansas children aged 3 to 7 with varying degrees of deafness and blindness. Deaf-blindness is a rare and severe disability affecting only about 12,000 children and youth nationwide and 134 identified in Kansas.

The strategy was adapted from Prelinguistic Milieu Teaching, an intervention that increases communication – gestures and vocalizations – in children with cognitive disabilities. PMT, and the adapted version developed for the study, are based in part on the way typically developing infants learn to communicate.

Brady, Bashinski and team targeted gestures that would be the most functional for children and easily understood by others such as reaching toward something with an open palm. Even such a seemingly natural and obvious requesting gesture had to be taught through a painstaking and individualized process of mostly hand- under-hand prompting using turn-taking with favorite toys. 

By the end of the intervention, all nine children had substantially increased their rates of initiated, intentional communication. In addition, new forms of natural gestures were acquired during the course of the intervention.

One child who communicated only once in 40 minutes at the beginning of the study was communicating more than 40 times during this same time period by the end of the intervention.

“It was neat to see that glimmer when the children realized that what they did had a reliable effect on their environment. That is really the whole point of communication,” said Brady.

Brady and Bashinski believe that the gesture-based communication method has great promise and deserves more research, but a practitioner could learn to use it now.

“Speech therapists want something they can take back to the classroom now, not just a lot of theory. They are desperate for anything that works.”