We’ve noticed our readers talking about cochlear implants more and more in recent months on our social media channels and in various spots on IndysChild.com, so it only made sense to dive deep on the topic for the May issue of Indy’s Child magazine. Is this option right for your child? What benefits are there? We hope this piece from our May issue helps answer those questions and more.
In a preschool classroom on Indianapolis’ northwest side, the children are debating where eggs come from. The teacher’s thoughtful questions lead to a detailed discussion, including voices raised with pint-sized conviction, laughter and lots of clucking like chickens.
But what appears to be a typical classroom scene is actually a testament to innovative technology, early intervention and highly specialized teacher training as these smart, spirited students also happen to be deaf.
Children at St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, a school serving ages 3 through 8 from across the state, learn to listen and speak with the help of cochlear implants – small electronic devices that do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain.
Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds, cochlear implants directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The Food and Drug Administration estimates more than 38,000 children in the U.S. have at least one implant, and the devices are constantly improving, becoming smaller, easier to use and more compatible with other technology.
Teri Ouellette, President of St. Joseph Institute and Director of the School, has witnessed the swift progression of both technology and educational theory over the course of her career. “When I first started, cochlear implants were a myth. Then they were developed, but it was just one electrode that basically gave you information that there’s sound or there’s not sound,” she says. “The first of the more advanced models were clunky and were prone to all kinds of problems. But when they started implanting them in older kids, the difference it made for them was obvious. It gave them access to all kinds of speech sounds that they previously couldn’t hear.”
The FDA currently allows implantation in children as young as 12 months, and research has shown that early implantation, along with subsequent speech and language therapy, can help children with hearing loss avoid missing out on important developmental milestones
“We hear often, ‘Well kids don’t talk until they’re 2 anyway.’ But you don’t just suddenly start talking when you’re 2. Infants spend a huge amount of time listening and laying down auditory pathways,” Ouellette says. “We have a window of development neurologically, and once we’ve passed that window, you can’t go back. So it’s incredibly important for that early identification and early auditory access that builds all those building blocks.”
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Advancements in technology have also made cochlear implants more accessible, from sleeker, waterproof designs, to built-in background noise suppression and Bluetooth connectivity to tap directly into phones and TVs.
Five-year-old Pearson Prifogle, a student at St. Joseph Institute, uses his implants to express himself, choosing different color caps based on his mood or outfit. His parents, Steve and Michele Prifogle, have even helped him figure out how to wear his implants safely while playing his favorite sports. “Like our 11-year-old son says, ‘Some people need glasses to see. Pearson needs implants to hear,’” says Steve. “From a cultural standpoint, there are also more people now who have no forms of disability who wear some type of technology, so his implants aren’t seen as so different.”
The next big advancement in cochlear implant technology will likely be a move toward a fully implantable device, although placement of the microphone and power supply remain problematic. There’s also buzz about the possibility of hair cell regeneration in the inner ear, which aims to restore hearing loss by regrowing damaged cells, although this is likely several years away from human testing.
In the meantime, Ouellette stresses that parents of children with hearing loss need to act as soon as possible. “Recognize that you have lots of choices and that all of them are much brighter than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” she says. “Choose a path and start going because the long-term outcomes are pretty amazing.”