Autism, auditory processing disorder and your child’s hearing health

By | July 28, 2019

Thanks to the common practice of newborn hearing screenings, most parents leave the hospital knowing how well their baby can hear. If their child is deaf or diagnosed with hearing loss, hospital staff and other healthcare professionals can guide the parents toward the appropriate communication and treatment resources.

A boy with headphones on looks out the window.
For children who are sensitive to certain
sounds, noise-isolating headphones
may help.

But sometimes the hearing loss diagnosis is a precursor to another developmental challenge known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Gallaudet Research Institute estimates as many as 40 percent of children with hearing loss exhibit an additional disability and estimates the prevalence of ASD among children who are deaf or have hearing loss to be 1 in 59.

What is autism?

The Autism Society defines ASD as a complex developmental disorder that appears in early childhood and affects a child’s ability to communicate. Although children with ASD do not outgrow this disorder, much like hearing loss, early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve a child’s outcome.

So how do you know if your child has more than hearing loss?

The Autism Society lists these signs to look for:

  • Lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (such as hand flapping or twirling objects)
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects

If your child is exhibiting these behaviors, consult your family physician. Although there are no specific medical procedures to test for ASD, your family physician can refer you to specialists who will administer a set of autism-specific behavioral evaluations designed to diagnose the disorder.

Autism and hearing loss

Because autism affects each child differently, it’s important to understand how the disorder may impact their ability to hear and process sounds. There is a wide range of how autism affects hearing. In some cases, a child may have no hearing loss. Or, a child may have mild, moderate or even significant hearing loss that can be corrected with hearing aids.

For many, the nerves that are responsible for delivering sound to the brain may malfunction (known as auditory processing disorder, APD), making it hard for the child to make sense of what is being said to them. Children with autism also may struggle with other types of sensory experiences, as well, known as multisensory processing disorder.

Auditory processing disorders and autism

Because autism can impact how your child processes sound and noise, your child may struggle with learning and language. An audiologist or specialist in ASD can suggest strategies to help them cope. These strategies may include:

Although their hearing may be normal, a child with ASD may process sound differently than other children.

Sound sensitivity in children with autism

Because of the difficulties processing sound, children with autism may be sensitive to certain sounds (hyperacusis) yet still have hearing loss in other ranges (for example, high-pitched sounds are very bothersome for the child, but the child can’t hear lower-pitched sounds clearly). This can make it tough to parse out if issues are stemming from hearing loss, or not. 

Learning which sounds overwhelm your child can help you decide how to respond. Some children do well wearing with noise-cancelling earphones or learning to retreat to a predetermined quiet spaces. In other cases, some kids are under-reactive, meaning they don’t respond appropriately to sounds in their environment. Pediatric audiologists and speech-language pathologists can work with your child to find the right noise comfort levels.

Ear infections and autism

It’s unclear if children with autism are more likely to have frequent ear infections, also known as otitis media. However, they may have a harder time expressing that they’re in pain, leading to a delayed diagnosis. Knowing the signs of a middle ear infection are important. 

Hearing loss misdiagnosed as autism

In some cases, if a child’s hearing or vision loss goes undiagnosed and communication problems arise, a child may be suspected to have autism. The Autism Society has useful, detailed information on how to tell them apart. 

How to find help

Autism affects each child differently, and the medical community is still looking for ways to understand this disorder. If you suspect your child’s hearing is affected by their autism spectrum diagnosis, work with your family doctor and hearing healthcare professional to find specialists who can provide options and treatments for the best outcome.

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