By Mah-rya Proper, South Denver Parent Guide
I will never forget that almost-spring day…the day we finally ended up at the audiologist through Child Find.
My oldest son, Augie, was three-and-a-half years old. He had been having meltdowns and tantrums, and was distracted and impulsive. He wasn’t learning his alphabet, even though his 18-month-old sister could recite it easily. He wouldn’t sit and play games or listen to books like he used to. He didn’t seem to listen to me or, especially, my husband. Yet, one-on-one, he could talk forEVER about his passion of the moment. He actively participated in our silent signing meals. We couldn’t quite put our finger on what was wrong, but it was time to find out what was happening.
Hence the perfunctory appointment with Child Find. Before they could do language testing, they would do a hearing test. A former audiology classmate from my undergrad program greeted me. She would be doing his testing. With my younger daughter in the baby carrier, I followed Augie into the booth and the familiar testing began.
All my experience in sound booths, being a friend of Deaf and hard of hearing people, and a practicing sign language interpreter…all of it came flooding over me. I saw my son’s (non) response to the very first tone, and I realized he couldn’t hear. He was Deaf. I just didn’t know “how” deaf he was at that point. I stepped out of the room so my reaction didn’t show or skew his results. I walked outside and cried. I didn’t cry because he was Deaf; I cried because I had woken up that morning with a Deaf son, and the world STILL didn’t know sign language.
I took some deep breaths, composed myself, and went back in. While the audiologist explained the results, I could see the audiogram and his moderate to severe rising bilateral hearing loss. I’d seen audiograms before, many of them. Cookie-bite. Sloping. Pure tone. Aided. Unaided. This one was different; this one was Augie’s.
The Unknown Age of Onset
I flashed back on his early weeks; he referred on his newborn hearing screen in the hospital. The nurses thought it was “just fluid” since he was born by C-section. In the follow up testing at two weeks old, I sat uncomfortably, still recovering from my C-section, nursing a newborn with a pinching latch. Hours later, when the audiologist finally finished, she said he was “fine”. If I had future concerns, I should follow up with my pediatrician. We left, putting aside any notion that Augie might be Deaf.
Until this day. Until this evidence, in black and white. On an audiogram. I had so many questions. How had he passed his screen, but had this loss? Our audiologist suspected a progressive loss since he had speech sounds that didn’t match what he could now perceive. I thanked and hugged my former classmate, and walked out.
My head was spinning. When, and why, and how did this happen? How did I not notice? I had an undergrad degree in this stuff. I had worked with Christie Yoshinaga-Itano on pediatric research published in audiology journals, and here my own kid was late-identified. HE had lost so many opportunities. How long had it been since he had heard us say we loved him? How long since he had access to language? While I was thankful that I could and had signed fluently with him early on, I mourned the paucity of ASL compared to hours of only spoken English in our household. I mourned my husband and parents missing out on learning ASL when he was a baby–it would be hard for them to get ahead of the game now. I began signing full force, all the time, and my husband began to learn.
Simultaneously, we searched for an audiologist and sought out copies of his newborn testing. I called two major clinics and was told there was a month or more wait for an appointment. With years of lost time already, Augie couldn’t wait. I finally found a former colleague still in early intervention who recommended an audiologist, and I shamelessly name-dropped on her voicemail, sharing our story. She got us in quickly and confirmed the bilateral sensorineural loss. We reluctantly agreed to a sedated ABR, and our wise audiologist recommended making his first earmold impressions while he was under. (He previously suffered through a botched wax removal that made him loathe for anyone or anything touching his ears.) Finally, the infant hearing test results came. About 75% of his OAEs were absent. He should’ve been referred for more testing, but the audiologist wrote her own reason for his results: “small ear canals.” I was livid. He most likely had undiagnosed mild/moderate hearing loss at birth. So much time had been lost.
We hurried to meet with a CO-Hear (regional infant hearing specialists in Colorado) and were set up with the Colorado Home Intervention (CHIP) services. At the time, CHIP services were still available past age three if a child’s late identification and birthday warranted additional support through the summer to get ready for preschool. A Deaf mentor came to read teach us how to share books with him.
What I Know Now
While all these medical and audiological appointments proceeded, I went to work as a VRS interpreter, pondering his future between calls. He was not yet four, and I was wondering where he would go to college. Gallaudet? RIT? Who would he marry? Would she be Deaf? Hearing? An interpreter? I felt like his world and options had shrunk to the subset of America who signed. Thankfully, a fellow interpreter and a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) helped restore my perspective and reframe my thinking. She listened, and reminded me that his world had also enlarged. He now had sisters and brothers in every country around the globe who shared a bond and a deep level of understanding with him. Hands & Voices connected me with another parent of a late-identified child. My friend was right – I needed to focus on the “Deaf gain” versus the “hearing loss”. He gained a community and a first and second language. I gained a support network. We were ready to move forward.
My husband and I enrolled our son at Rocky Mountain Deaf School, a bilingual charter school. Based on his audiogram, I figured he would be a signing kid. While it was easy to find speech therapy, I didn’t know of another place that provided “sign therapy.” He attended RMDS for preschool (in what I call “remedial ASL” for two years) until he came to me and said in spoken English, “Mom, I don’t want to go to a signing school; I want to go to a talking school.” I would’ve never forced my Deaf kid to speak, but here I was forcing him to sign, and he didn’t want to anymore. That was the moment when “what” I knew as a professional was replaced with “who” I knew. As his parent, I’ve been learning about him ever since.
We changed school placements. We did some Listening and Spoken Language therapy with one of the best therapists in Denver (something I would never have pursued under my previous, professional “expert” opinion). We kept signing. We used an FM system without an interpreter. We tried a captioned telephone and VRS. We transferred to a small out-of-district charter with a 504 Plan. In fifth grade, it was clear auditory access alone wasn’t enough. Now he attends a different school with an IEP and an educational interpreter. Through all of this, I tried to expose him to Deaf people, sign, speech, and options. We talk about pros and cons. He gets to make decisions about his access. Last year, he began using an educational sign language interpreter and the Roger touchscreen. This year, he decided to stop using the Roger system but kept the interpreter, when he chooses to pay attention, instead of reading his always-present book.
Next year? Who knows?
Now I know he is going to be fine, well, as fine as any parent of a thirteen-year-old boy imagines their kid will be. He is smart, kind, passionate, and determined. Good Lord, is he determined. I am no longer trying to project what his future will be; I walk with him as he creates his future. He has given me so many gifts: the gift of parenthood, the gift of parenting a Deaf kid, the gift of parenting HIM. I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything.