Program keeps infants tuned into world around them

Adela Talbot // Western News

“I enjoy working with families,” said Christine Brown, a senior audiologist at the H.A. Leeper Speech and Hearing Clinic. “It’s definitely difficult to deliver news that your newborn infant has a hearing loss. But I do find it rewarding to then see children progress and develop good speech and language because we’ve identified them early on.”

Samantha King hoped her baby would be healthy. But when Addyson was born, King discovered her child’s right ear was missing a canal, limiting the baby girl’s hearing.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” King said. “As a parent, you’re hoping and wishing your child all the best. It’s scary. You’re not sure how the future is going to play out for your child.”

Two years later, King is feeling far more confident about her daughter’s abilities thanks to the Infant Hearing Program, a provincially funded service at Western that helped identify Addyson’s hearing needs. The service is offered on campus through the H.A. Leeper Speech and Hearing Clinic at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, under the direction of the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU).

Outside-the-Gates-Cover

When Addyson was brought to the clinic, she was treated by senior audiologist Christine Brown.

“I enjoy working with families,” said Brown, who has been with the program since its inception in 2001. “It’s definitely difficult to deliver news that your newborn infant has a hearing loss. But I do find it rewarding to then see children progress and develop good speech and language because we’ve identified them early on.”

Around 11,000 babies are born each year in the Thames Valley Region. Of those, 30-35 are identified with hearing loss.

The program screens all babies in Ontario at birth, before they are discharged from hospital. If they don’t pass, they are sent for additional screenings in the community and are then sent to a clinic associated with the program for a full diagnostic. For those tested in the London area, that means a trip to Western. Brown receives about 20 referrals a month.

For the full diagnostic, Brown tests the infant’s reaction to sound while they are sleeping. If the diagnostic reveals a hearing loss, she works with the family to provide the child with the proper hearing aids and support services.

“That’s one of the pleasures of working with the program,” Brown said. “The evidence suggests if we identify babies early on and they’ve got the appropriate supports in place, those children can be very successful communicators by the time they enter school.”

Debbie Shugar, regional manager of the program for the MLHU, said early intervention has been a hallmark of the program’s success. Prior, children weren’t identified with hearing loss until 2. Now, they are being caught at two or three months.

“The fact we have the ability to work with children and families that are so young and make a difference at a young age is sensational,” Shugar said. “When you can get in early and provide supports to families it makes a huge difference.”

Shugar added that the great thing about partnering with Western is it doubles as a learning experience for dozens of students at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“It gives students first-hand experience with what happens in the field,” she said.

J.B. Orange, director of the school, echoed the sentiment.

“Our stellar faculty here are fully committed to our mantra of integrating research, teaching, and clinical practice,” he said.

Orange believes that through assisting children with their communication abilities at a young age, his school’s clinical services are preventing their isolation.

“Communication is the key to all human behaviour,” he said. “If you can’t communicate, you’re isolated. You’re in solitary confinement. And our roles as clinicians and teachers are to help people not be in solitary confinement.”

As for Addyson, now 2, there’s no longer the worry of “solitary confinement.”

Two years into the program, she is progressing well.

“You wouldn’t even know she has a hearing loss.”

The support King received from the program, and the treatment provided to Addyson have helped tremendously. King said she would recommend the program at Western “100 per cent” to others.

“They explain things very simply and they go through every step with you,” she said. “They’re very supportive, understanding, and informative.”