Now I Know My ABC’s: Encouraging Early Language Development.
When Leslie and Chris Butchko heard the news that their son was severely to profoundly deaf, they grieved for all of the things their little boy would never be able to hear: the singing of birds, the rush of the ocean, a mother’s hushed lullaby. What they feared most of all, however, was that the loss of those sounds would mean their son would never speak.They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Success with technology
Help for hard of hearing children has come a long way in the last 50 years. As recently as the 1970s, children who were diagnosed with severe or profound hearing loss had very few options. Today, more than 90% of all newborns are screened for hearing loss. That means that deaf and hard of hearing children are identified earlier, and their parents can begin rehabilitation programs in a more timely way.
“The result is that the younger the children are who begin rehabilitation…the quicker their auditory skills develop and close the gap significantly with children with normal hearing,” said Dr. John House, president of the House Ear Institute, and a specialist in the fields of otology and neuro-otology.
Diagnosis: The earlier the better
For deaf or hard of hearing newborns, early diagnosis and intervention in the first six months is critical. Studies indicate that if children with hearing loss receive treatment before they are 6 months old, they often will develop age-appropriate communication and language skills — as good as those of children with normal hearing — by the time they start kindergarten or first grade.
Hearing loss in children can develop over time
While many children are born with normal hearing, they may begin to have hearing problems, as they grow older. That’s why regular hearing tests are administered until children are 5 years old.
The reason for the urgency is that deaf, and hard of hearing children, need to learn speech and language differently. Often, early intervention and assistance – also referred to as language habilitation – will allow your child to enroll in a mainstream school.
Since parents and siblings are typically a child’s first, and most important, language models, they play a critical role in helping a child learn language. Chris Butchko’s severely to profoundly deaf son is now in middle school, sporting a 4.0 GPA. Butchko is certain his son’s language acquisition, despite the significant delay of a hearing loss diagnosis, was key to the boy’s current academic and social success.
“Your child will do what he can, but the responsibility for his language development is on you, the parent,” Butchko said. “You need to teach him how to listen and react for sounds. You must teach him how to make sounds that are real and meaningful to him, and to the people around him.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
One key step toward language acquisition is to immerse your child in activities and programs that practice language-facilitating strategies. For families that live too far from a hearing center offering these programs, there are online courses and tools available.
When searching and evaluating programs, just be mindful of outdated child-centered services that minimize parental involvement. Look for a parent-centered approach to teaching language, similar to the one the Butchkos found at the John Tracy Clinic, a diagnostic and educational center for children with hearing loss. Those language acquisition strategies include :
- Modeling language for your child
- Ensuring your child’s hearing aids are providing enough amplification
- Motivating your child to overcome challenges
- Encouraging your son or daughter to vocalize, rather than rely on banging to get attention or pointing at objects he wants
Dr. House admires the emotional and financial investment parents and families put into helping a hard of hearing child, especially when it comes to learning speech. “I would say all the parents that I deal with want to do anything possible to allow their child to have the best advantage,” said Dr. House.
Taking charge – Your role as the advocate
But it’s not just early language development that your child with hearing loss needs. Advocating, and speaking up for your child, is also vitally important to ongoing language acquisition. Whether it’s at school, dealing with your insurance company, or even handling extended family members that may or may not know how to best interact with your child, dispelling prejudices, fighting against discrimination, and banishing isolation are all critical to her success with language.
“One of the problems with hearing loss is that it’s kind of an invisible problem,” said Dr. House. “If the person is blind and they have a white cane or a seeing-eye dog, everybody can relate to that. But if someone has a severe hearing loss, it doesn’t show. And so therefore, people will be impatient with them.”
Even with all that you do for your hard of hearing child, communication at times can be strained. Don’t worry: that’s to be expected. Your child’s inability to communicate may occasionally make you feel frustrated, or as if there is a distance between the two of you. Be patient. The more effort you put into your child’s learning and habilitation, the greater his language ability will be.
With all that is required of you on this journey, it’s easy for other family members to feel overlooked. Experts agree, however: The parents of children with hearing loss should make spending time with their spouse and their hearing children a priority. Even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes a day, taking the time to connect with other family members can help maintain open lines of communication.
In the end, optimism
Today, more than ever, there is hope for language acquisition for children who are hard of hearing. Chris Butchko, understands that, these days, nearly anything possible for children with severe to profound hearing loss.
“We’ve always said about deafness that it’s the gentlest handicap,” said the father of two. “We’ve been fortunate that Johnny was born when he was born, because now there is so much more available to the deaf community – from hearing aids to digital hearing aids to cochlear implant technology.