Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Question from C.H., British Columbia

I am a hearing, fluent ASL signer who is considering adopting a deaf child from a developing country. I have very limited information about his health history or hearing beyond the fact that the child “does not hear or speak at all.” The child’s estimated birth date is March 2012 and he has been living in an orphanage since being abandoned by his birth family for a couple(?) years. He is reported to imitate other children well and generally be content and happy. There does not seem to be any exposure to signed language and I assume zero early intervention or auditory assessments made. I am very aware of the importance of early language exposure. I can provide a signing environment probably from age 4.5 onward. I am wondering if you would see any benefit to his overall cognitive, social-emotional and academic development in also pursing a CI? Is it possible for a child to “catch up” from such a late start? I know that amongst older Deaf people this situation of coming to language late is not as unusual as it is today. My hope for my child would be that they would be able to become a critical thinker, I don’t place as much value on speech skills as I do on the possible boost to English literacy that might come from auditory input a CI could provide. I am an interpreter and I am trained as an elementary school teacher (though I don’t teach deaf kids) .

Question from C.H., British Columbia. Posted February 18, 2016.
Response from Carol De Filippo - NTID

The benefits that you seek from a CI are not usually achieved by children whose families have not invested significant resources into auditory-based instruction (speech perception and production) from the time of implant, throughout the school years. That investment entails placing a high value on acquiring spoken language and being willing and able to commit time and energy toward the process. On the flip side, however, there is no guarantee that investing a high level of desire and effort will have the payoff that you wish for your child.

Your child’s auditory brain areas will not be fully mature until his early teens. It remains open to learning, even learning language, although those areas may be allocated to visual processing without acoustic stimulation prior to about age 7. So, you are working with a long list of unknowns, inevitable in the situation of adoption, especially when a child is born in a developing country. For example, you believe your child to be deaf. It may very well be true that your child is deaf; or maybe not. Even a moderate conductive hearing loss could account for apparent lack of hearing (thereby, ruling out a CI); or there may be an anatomical abnormality of the outer or middle ear, possibly reversible; or auditory neuropathy affecting neural transmission of sound to the brain. Or something else.

Among the unknowns is the child’s experience in utero and during birth; his early nutrition, diseases, and accidents; his genetic makeup; and whether he met nonverbal developmental milestones. There is no information about his speech motor skills. It would be informative to learn whether he attempts to communicate his needs (grunt, point, gesture, pull an adult to a relevant place). While he is said to be content and happy and imitates other children, does he engage in play with others? Does he recognize and comprehend symbols (for example, match pictures to objects)?

A CI is not a magic bullet. At the outset, with an uncertain history like your child’s, even CI candidacy may be difficult to ascertain. Following audiologic and development assessments, there is a requisite trial with a well-fit hearing aid. If a CI is obtained, benefit will be measured in small steps, focusing on gradual growth: whether the child accepts the new input, shows increased environmental sound awareness, turns to familiar voices, demonstrates changes in vocalizations. Many small steps precede the desired big gains. Catch-up, were it achievable, is very unlikely to be demonstrable early on. Your plan is to provide a signing environment, and speech appears to be of indeterminate value. Without a plan to provide consistent auditory (spoken) stimulation at home and at school, the CI will be significantly hampered in the facilitation of spoken language learning and positive effects on literacy and academic performance. Parents who consider a CI for their children often do so with the intention to get the most out of the tool. They speak to their child. They provide instruction that will help the child to speak. They stay the course through the school years.

Importantly, handle the transition from orphanage to home, first and foremost. Take time to tend to the emotional attachments with your child as much as you focus deliberately on his cognitive and academic development. Your child should feel safe and loved, without pressure to perform, as you establish communication through your relationship. Gently, consistently, reward all efforts to communicate. Initial stimulation should not be overwhelming. Your commitment to parenting will support your child’s learning. Be prepared to begin at the beginning, as if welcoming a new baby, with silly songs and first picture books.

Then, find the best pediatric audiologist in your region and make an appointment for a complete audiologic assessment. Follow up on all recommendations without delay. Filling in the unknowns will confirm your thinking one way or the other regarding speech and move you from a hypothetical answer to a personalized response on CI candidacy and estimates of CI benefit. If you choose a CI or a hearing aid, ensure consistent use and daily wear time. Minimize background noise in the house and at school. Focus the child on listening. Model spoken language and emphasize sound before vision. Use “listen cues” and wait time to establish listening attention. Then be expectant. And be patient. Keep in mind that hearing age will be more relevant than chronologic age.