Differentiating characteristics of deafblindness and autism in people with congenital deafblindness and profound intellectual disability

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In persons with deafblindness, it is hard to distinguish autism spectrum disorders from several deafblind specific behaviours caused by the dual sensory impairments, especially when these persons are also intellectually disabled. As a result, there is an over-diagnosis of autism in persons who are deafblind leading to unsuitable interventions.


Autism as specified by the DSM-IV was studied in 10 persons with congenital deafblindness with profound intellectual disabilities. Behaviours of people with deafblindness and autism (n = 5) and of people with deafblindness without autism (n = 5) were observed in a semi-standardised assessment.


All people with deafblindness showed impairments in social interaction, communication and language. In contrast to persons without autism, people with deafblindness and autism showed significantly more impairments in reciprocity of social interaction, quality of initiatives to contact and the use of adequate communicative signals and functions. No differences between the groups were found for quantity and persistence of stereotyped behaviour, quality of play and exploration and adequate problem-solving strategies.


This study indicates that there are some possibilities to differentiate autism from behaviours specific for deafblindness. It also confirms the large overlap in overt behaviours between people with deafblindness and persons with autism.

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