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Ask the Audiologist: How Can I Tell if My Child Has Autism or Hearing Loss?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and hearing loss are two completely different conditions. So, you would think parents and educators should be able to tell if a child has one disorder or the other. However, the relationship between autism and hearing loss is much more complicated than at first glance.

Symptoms and manifestations

Young children who have ASD or hearing loss exhibit many of the same behavioral characteristics. Some of them include:

  • Poor eye contact
  • Echolalia, or repeating others’ speech
  • Delayed language acquisition
  • Social isolation
  • Delayed development of social skills

These and other confounding factors often make it hard for parents and professionals to determine if a child is exhibiting signs of ASD or hearing loss. As a result, many children are often misdiagnosed, or correctly diagnosed later on, meaning precious time for intervention and treatment may be lost.

Concurrence of hearing loss and ASD

To complicate the matter, many children have both hearing loss and ASD simultaneously. In fact, research from the Gallaudet Research Institute shows that as many as one in every 59 children who are deaf or hard of hearing are also on the autism spectrum. Compared to ASD, universal newborn hearing screenings and routine screenings conducted at school afford many more opportunities for the detection of hearing loss. As a result, ASD can often go undiagnosed in some children because they have already been identified with hearing loss, and the warning signs of ASD are wrongly attributed to their hearing loss. Alternatively, children identified with ASD may develop hearing loss, which can also be overlooked as professionals focus their treatment on ASD.

What to look for

As parents, we know our children best. So, it is important to recognize the signs that may indicate if your child has hearing loss, ASD, or both. If you suspect that your child is not responding to sound stimuli or learning speech or language appropriately for their age, get their hearing tested first and foremost. Depending on the maturity and developmental abilities of your child, there are ways for hearing care professionals to accurately determine their hearing ability.

Although objective hearing tests that don’t require patient participation may not determine how your child’s brain is processing the auditory input picked up by their ears, it is a good place to start in terms of ruling out hearing disorders. Keep in mind that since hearing loss can develop at any time, even if he or she passed a hearing screening years before, an updated hearing test may still be necessary.

Once a hearing problem has been ruled out, then you and your child’s doctors can proceed to determine if other disorders may be affecting his or her development, such as ASD.

If your child has already been diagnosed with hearing loss, here are some signs that could indicate they should also be evaluated for ASD:

  • Your child does not like to be touched.
  • Your child becomes overly upset at changes or disruptions in routine.
  • Your child seems over-sensitive to certain tastes, textures, sights, sounds, and lights.
  • When upset or anxious, your child performs self-injurious acts, such as head-banging.
  • Your child engages in odd postures or repetitive hand gestures.

Advocating for your child

Oftentimes, arriving at an accurate diagnosis for your child’s developmental delay is a complex process, and requires a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. But by being informed and involved, and staying positive, you will be the most powerful advocate and ally for your child.