I have recently read several articles from reputable sources citing the probable increase in speech and language disorders as an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Professionals say they are seeing, or expecting to see, an increase in the number of young children with speech and/or language delays and they attribute this to two years of reduced social/emotional/educational opportunities and the inability for children to aurally and visually acquire language successfully because everyone around them has worn masks.
This hypothesis might prove to be true. Yet, this isn’t what concerns me. Years before the emergence of COVID-19, my youngest child’s speech and language development failed to progress. She invented a language of her own. She failed to learn numbers and letters. Her ability to communicate with others deteriorated during her toddler years and it had absolutely nothing to do with social distancing, face coverings or the reduction of incidental learning opportunities.
My daughter had mysteriously lost her hearing and no one noticed.
While universal newborn hearing screening has been a very successful protocol that has identified millions of children who are deaf or hard of hearing early since it was mandated 30+ years ago, just as many children lose their hearing between birth and school age as those who are identified at birth. A child’s hearing can permanently change at any time in their lives. Whether genetics, illness, ototoxic medications or other factors contribute to the cause, most of the time families of children with postnatal hearing loss are caught off guard when the diagnosis is eventually made.
I fear that children with late onset hearing loss that was acquired during the COVID-19 public health emergency (but, not because of the virus) will face even longer delays in identification. Instead of considering possible hearing loss as a reason for speech or language deficits, professionals and families will lean into the idea that life during COVID is the culprit. I worry that more pediatricians and parents will take a ‘wait and see’ approach than in past years. I’m concerned that children who are enrolled in speech therapy will not have their hearing screened until they fail to make sufficient progress – and that’s lost time when a child’s brain is prime for language development. Every moment counts.
During Late Onset Hearing Loss Awareness Week, which was established in 2021 and occurs annually May 4-10, it is my hope that anyone and everyone connected to infants and young children will take a moment to learn more about the prevalence, risk factors and common signs of postnatal hearing loss. Monitoring developmental milestones is one method for noticing when a child might be off track. Parents have the right to push for more frequent hearing screening between birth and school age if they have concerns and we as a country need to shift from the current ‘let’s wait and see’ approach to ‘when in doubt, check it out.’
We can find these children sooner and by doing so dramatically improve their lives, but it will take all of us, together, educating each other, to move the dial.
For more information about pediatric late onset hearing loss, visit: https://www.hearingfund.org/lohl-awareness
To find a pediatric audiologist in your area, visit: https://www.ehdi-pals.org/
About The Author
Valerie James Abbott
Valerie James Abbott is co-founder of the national Late Onset Hearing Loss Awareness Campaign, award-winning author of Padapillo and Padapillo (Edición en español), and an active parent-champion and advocate for Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Programs. Mrs. Abbott developed a strong interest in reducing pediatric communication disorders and developmental delays by improving hearing loss identification rates of children between birth and school age after her youngest child’s hearing loss was late-identified.