Babies are born with a unique set of characteristics, yet blissfully oblivious to any characteristics that may stand out. They are resilient and adaptable as they experience their environment. Babies who are identified as deaf or hard of hearing (dhh) readily accept what they can hear or cannot hear as their normal experience. Their needs are simply to feel comfortable, be fed, and to be loved. They don’t know what they don’t know.
“My son was born ‘perfect’,” a MNH&V mother quipped about her son who is deaf. “It was our big idea to add sound to his world.”
For many parents it is usually unexpected to learn their child is dhh. Statistically over 90% of children who are dhh have parents with typical hearing. After their initial reaction to the news that their child is dhh parents begin to put together what it means to raise a child who is dhh. It means a higher level of responsibility for parents to make a myriad of decisions on their child’s behalf. How will their child best access language? No matter what form or shape language is administered to your child who is dhh the key is access, access, access.
“Infants’ brains are wired for language that is accessible to them through either visual (signs) or auditory (spoken) modalities,” writes Marilyn Sass-Lehrer, Gallaudet University, in the Oxford University Press Journal. “The achievement of language milestones in either sign language or spoken language is crucial to the overall development of the child.”
Research shows the optimal language learning years are from birth to age 5 years. Communication is made up of two important parts, receptive and expressive. In the first few years children often understand the language they have access to or “received” long before they begin to use language expressively. For children with typical hearing 90% of what they know is overheard, 10% is taught. Overhearing spoken language can be greatly diminished or nonexistent for children who are dhh. Families, along with the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) team and dhh educators, are essential partners in providing access to language. For children who are dhh communication can take longer to establish and it is heavily reliant on how much access to language they have experienced. The challenges for the family and the team are to develop a workable plan and, as it is said, “don’t give up before the miracle happens”.
“Input, input, input, my job is to ‘feed’ my littlest students as much language as possible in a language-rich environment; its not until years later sometime in grade school, when the magic happens,” said an early childhood DHH educator referring to a child’s expressive language skills. “I don’t always get to see it happen, but I know it will.”
Do not underestimate what your infant or child who is dhh can see or hear or feel. Language access of any kind can never start too soon or be too much. The question of how much sound access does an infant who is dhh really have cannot easily be answered and it varies from child to child. Understanding your child’s audiogram is important, but nothing can truly simulate for parents the sounds of speech that are available to your child even with amplification. Plus, many other factors can affect language access, from distractions and interest level to overall health and environmental noise. There are a lot of unknowns, but one thing is for sure: your child who is dhh is ready to access language.
Start today! Try the ideas professionals on your IFSP team have suggested and do everything you can to make language accessible at home and wherever your child is. Dance, play, read, explore, work, celebrate, and learn together what will bridge your child’s language learning.