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University of Iowa News

July 13, 2005

'Listen And Speak Up' Helps Preschoolers With Hearing Impairments

Preschoolers can be enthusiastic learners, and it's no different for the 2- to 5-year-olds in the "Listen and Speak Up" program at the University of Iowa Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic.

However, these youngsters are learning communication skills while also learning how to use cochlear implants and/or hearing aids they received due to severe to profound hearing impairment.

The pilot program helps these very young children maximize the benefits of the technologies, especially cochlear implants, said Anne Wallace, the program's co-director and associate professor (clinical) of speech pathology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Danielle Kelsay, UI associate professor (clinical) of audiology, is program co-director.

"The program's focus is unique because most other preschool programs geared toward children with this degree of hearing loss may not focus primarily on facilitating auditory skills," Wallace explained. "'Listen and Speak Up' is oriented toward helping preschoolers who use devices for hearing impairment to make better use of auditory skills and to learn spoken language. It can also be helpful to children who are learning to communicate using a combination of sign language and spoken language."

"In the past, families that have opted to use an auditory approach for communication have had to leave the state or struggled to find services with this emphasis," she added.

The program helps children learn to make sense of the sounds from cochlear implants, which take the place of damaged inner ear functions.

The implant consists of a small microphone worn over the ear that picks up sound, a speech processor (usually clipped to clothing) that changes the sound into electrical signals, and a tiny transmitter that relays the signals to an implanted electrode component that contains a microchip that decodes and distributes the information along the cochlear nerve.

"The trend for children, with hearing parents, who are born deaf or lose most of their hearing is to receive cochlear implants," Wallace said. "The younger the children are, the easier it is to teach these skills."

It can take up to one year for a child to become adept at interpreting sounds heard through the device. Graduate students assist with teaching, and experts in the UI Department of Otolaryngology provide weekly music therapy.

The program may be small -- serving four children and their families from eastern and central Iowa -- but the impact is huge. Tina Telander, of Coralville, whose son, Kelby, age 2 1/2, is participating in the six-week summer program, said it is "phenomenal."

"The organization is impeccable and the teacher-child ratio is so important," Telander said. "There is much one-on-one work and play. The teachers are consistently trying to get precise speech out of Kelby," Telander said.

Kelby wears a hearing aid in his right ear and a cochlear implant in his left ear, and the sounds "mesh together," Telander said. Risk remains for additional or sudden complete hearing loss in his right ear, which would make him dependent solely on the cochlear implant.

Telander and her husband, Neil, said it was a hard, but important, decision to have Kelby get a cochlear implant. "We decided to do this since it's much more beneficial to have a cochlear implant at a young age and because he once temporarily lost all hearing in his right ear," she said.

Last March, Kelby had surgery and was fitted with the device by UI experts in otolaryngology. He spends some time using the cochlear implant alone, but the majority of the time he uses it in combination with his hearing aid. Some children use only cochlear implants.

Telander said the "Listen and Speak Up" program helps Kelby learn to listen and react appropriately in diverse communication situations -- from interacting with other children to acting out songs like "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on a Bed."

Wallace said parents play an essential role in helping their children.

"The parents are rewarding to work with and enthusiastic about learning new things," she said. "With participants from as far away as Ottumwa and Newton, it's definitely a commitment on the parents' part to bring them to this program twice a week."

Wallace said the program also provides opportunities to train graduate students in speech pathology and audiology and advance research.

"The graduate students are the future service providers of our community, and we want them to be trained for working with this ever-growing population," she said. "We eventually would like to see a regular auditory-oral preschool program for children with severe to profound hearing impairment."

Program costs are covered by tuition fees and funding from Sertoma of Iowa City, the Iowa City Host Lions Club and the Ottumwa Community School District.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5137 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1178

CONTACTS: Media Only: Becky Soglin, 319-335-6660, becky-soglin@uiowa.edu; Program: UI Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic, 319-335-8736