Autism and Hearing Loss – Is There a Connection?

Autism and Hearing Loss connection

Today’s parents have an advantage over those of generations past – with modern technology and medical practices, most parents now know a great deal about the health of their newborn child before they even leave the hospital. Oto-acoustic emissions testing, for example, can detect hearing loss within the first few days of life. Some disorders, such as autism, however, take longer to show up and diagnose.

What is autism?

Although research continues to help explain and define this complex neurobehavioral disorder, it is generally characterized by impaired social interaction and a lack of, or delay in, the development of communication skills. Autism affects each individual differently – because of this, it is now commonly referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This more accurately describes the variety of ways in which the disorder presents itself.

Autism vs. hearing loss – which is it?

Children with ASD often exhibit impaired social behaviors, such as not making eye contact or preferring to be alone. They may also display signs of delayed language development. Since these symptoms are similar to what a hearing-impaired child would have, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the two disorders.

autism and hearing loss

If you notice that your child is exhibiting unusual behaviors, an audiologist or ASD specialist can help decipher whether they are caused by hearing loss, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or even both. In general, however, children with ASD also present with symptoms like these:

  • Repetitive language or gestures (i.e. rocking, spinning)
  • Disinterest in social relationships
  • Repeated fixation on particular objects or their minute details
  • Lack of imaginative play

Sound sensitivity and autism

While many children with ASD have hearing that is within normal limits, they may experience another phenomenon – hyperacusis. This is a hearing impairment characterized by hyper-sensitivity to sounds within a certain frequency or volume. The first step in treatment is determining which types of sound your child is overly sensitive to. Then, possible treatment options can be explored. These include adaptations such as finding a quiet place when needed, or wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

In contrast, other children are under-responsive to certain sounds. This can easily be confused with hearing loss, so it’s important to have a thorough hearing assessment completed by an audiologist. If hearing loss is determined to be the root problem, your child’s hearing professional may recommend hearing aids, assistive listening devices, or a combination of auditory and speech training to improve communication.

Hearing loss screenings for individuals with autism

To determine the existence or extent of hearing loss in a child with autism, several different test methods can be used. Which test is utilized often depends on the age and responsiveness of the child. Let’s take a closer look at each option.

  1. Aural Health Review: This involves doing a physical check of the ear anatomy for any obvious defects. Blood tests can also be performed to check lead levels and the presence of any chronic fluid in the ear is documented.
  2. Tympanogram: Middle ear testing involves checking the responsiveness of the eardrum to air pressure within the ear canal. How well it responds ultimately indicates how well an individual can hear. A tympanogram is the graphic representation of these test results.
  3. Otoacoustic Emissions Testing (OAE): This is a passive hearing test that measures the movement of cilia, the tiny hairs within the cochlea. Because it doesn’t require any response from the person being tested, OAE is often used to test hearing function in infants or other individuals with limited communication abilities.
  4. Standard Audiometry: This is the kind of hearing test with which most people are familiar. It involves exposing the subject to a variety of sounds through headphones. A verbal or physical response (i.e. raising a hand) is required by the test subject to indicate that they can hear the sounds presented.
  5. Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR): This test measures the functioning of the inner ear. Electrodes are placed on the scalp and they measure a series of sound waves. No response is required from the child so it is another great option for children with communication difficulties.

Treating hearing impairments and autism

If any hearing impairment is experienced by children with ASD, it’s important to treat it early and appropriately so that it doesn’t further impair the child’s development or social interactions. A solid team of medical professionals, working together with you and your child, can help devise a treatment regimen that will produce the best possible outcome. Give us a call today – one of our audiologists would be happy to be on your team!

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