Autism Spectrum Disorder and your child’s hearing health
Thanks to the common practice of newborn hearing screenings, most parents leave the hospital knowing how well their baby can hear. If their child is deaf or diagnosed with hearing loss, hospital staff and other healthcare professionals can guide the parents toward the appropriate communication and treatment resources.
But sometimes the hearing health diagnosis is a precursor to another developmental challenge known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Gallaudet Research Institute estimates as many as 40 percent of children with hearing loss exhibit an additional disability and estimates the prevalence of ASD among children who are deaf or have hearing loss to be 1 in 59.
What is autism?
The Autism Society defines ASD as a complex developmental disability which appears in early childhood and affects a child’s ability to communicate. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014 the prevalence of autism occurred once in every 68 births. Although children do not outgrow this disorder, much like hearing loss, early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve a child’s outcome.
So how do you know if your child has more than hearing loss?
The Autism Society lists these signs to look for:
- Lack of or delay in spoken language
- Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (such as hand flapping or twirling objects)
- Lack of interest in peer relationships
- Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
- Persistent fixation on parts of objects
If your child is exhibiting these behaviors, consult your family physician. Although there are no specific medical procedures to test for ASD, your family physician can refer you to specialists who will administer a set of autism-specific behavioral evaluations designed to diagnose the disorder.
Autism and hearing health
Because ASD affects each child differently, it’s important to understand how the disorder may impact hearing health -- even among those who appear to be hearing normally.
Inner ear deficiency
Children diagnosed with ASD may have an inner ear deficiency which impairs their ability to recognize speech. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center identified this deficiency by measuring the otoacoustic emissions of children between the ages of 6 and 17. Those who had been diagnosed with ASD had difficulty hearing a specific frequency (1-2 kHZ) important for processing speech.
“Auditory impairment has long been associated with developmental delay and other problems, such as language deficits,” Loisa Benneto, Ph. D. and a co-author of the study said in the July 25, 2016 online issue of Science News. “While there is no association between hearing problems and autism, difficulties in processing speech may contribute to some of the core symptoms of the disease.”
Like other auditory processing disorders, this deficiency can contribute to your child’s difficulty with learning and language. An audiologist or specialist in ASD can determine your child’s exact hearing and language deficit and suggest strategies to help them cope. These strategies may include:
- Hearing aids or other amplification devices
- Use of assistive listening devices (ALD)
- Auditory and speech training
- Musical training
- Computer-based tools
- Training with a speech pathologist
Although their hearing may be normal, a child with ASD may process sound differently than other children.
- Some are overly sensitive to certain frequencies and volumes (hyperacusis). Learning which sounds overwhelm your child can help you decide how to respond. Some children do well wearing noise-cancelling earphones or learning to retreat to a predetermined quiet space.
- Some are under-reactive, meaning they don’t respond appropriately to sounds in their environment. If your child ignores people speaking and other noises, have their hearing tested by an audiologist to rule out hearing problems.
ASD affects each child differently, and the medical community is still looking for ways to understand this disorder. If you suspect your child’s hearing is affected by their ASD diagnosis, work with your family doctor and hearing healthcare professional to find specialists who can provide options and treatments for the best outcome.