Diagnosing Hearing Impairments In Autistic Children: Advice For Parents

Posted on: 18 August 2015

According to data compiled in 2012, there are around 115,000 people in Australia with autism – an increase of 70 percent compared to 2009. Autistic children face a range of behavioural symptoms, which can make it harder to diagnose other conditions, including problems with hearing. Learn more about the challenges that autistic children with hearing impairments can face, and find out how doctors and audiologists can accurately diagnose these conditions.

About hearing impairments

There are many different hearing impairments that can affect an autistic child. In fact, a hearing impairment is any condition that makes it difficult for your child to receive and process sound normally.

Audiologists generally consider four types of hearing impairment, as follows:

  • Conductive impairments affect the outer and middle ear and generally affect all frequencies of hearing
  • Sensorineural impairments occur because of damage to the inner ear
  • Mixed impairments affect both the inner and outer or middle ear
  • Central impairments occur due to damage to your central nervous system

The effect of these impairments can vary considerably from one person to another. Some people may experience mild hearing loss or discomfort, while other patients can end up with severe deafness.

Why diagnosis of a hearing impairment is harder in autistic children

It's often harder to diagnose hearing impairments in autistic children because of the other symptoms they face.

Autistic children can struggle to cope with unusual situations. For example, a simple appointment with an audiologist can overload an autistic child's sensory system. Some autistic children are hypersensitive and are unable to cope with the slightest touch or contact with a stranger. Conversely, some autistic children are hyposensitive, and, even if something causes extreme pain, these kids will often show no obvious signs.

To diagnose a hearing impairment, an audiologist will need to run several tests. Understanding how a child reacts to these tests is crucial to an accurate diagnosis, so the behavioural problems that autistic children exhibit can make it harder to reach a conclusion.

Confusing autism with a hearing impairment

The reverse problem can also occur. Doctors will normally check newborn infants for hearing impairments shortly after birth. While this can often confirm a diagnosis at an early stage, doctors and parents sometimes then fail to spot the signs of autism and assume that any behavioural problems occur because of the hearing issue.

Studies show that there is no conclusive evidence that autistic children are more likely to experience a hearing impairment. Nonetheless, it's important to carefully check for the signs of a hearing impairment following an autism diagnosis, and vice versa.

Signs to look for

While the symptoms of autism and a hearing impairment are sometimes similar, experienced audiologists and doctors can often spot certain signs that point to one condition.

For example, if a child becomes agitated when trying to communicate, he or she could suffer from a hearing impairment, autism or both. However, if a child actively chooses other ways to communicate, such as pointing or gesticulating, it's more likely that he or she has a hearing impairment. Similarly, a child with a hearing impairment is more likely to enjoy hugs and other types of physical contact.

Conversely, an autistic child may cope with communication problems in more extreme ways. For example, he or she may start head hitting or face slapping when it becomes difficult to successfully communicate.

As such, you may need several visits to a doctor and/or audiologist before he or she can offer a fully accurate diagnosis. Other specialised tests are also sometimes necessary. For example, brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) is a test that measures how brain wave activity responds to sound. Behavioural problems won't normally affect BAER test results, so this diagnostic is a good way to check for a hearing impairment.

It's easy to confuse the symptoms of a hearing impairment with the signs of autism. To make sure your child gets the support he or she needs, talk to your doctor about the tests and expert advice you need to get the correct diagnosis.For more information on hearing impairments and ways to deal with them, contact a center such as Expert Hearing Care (Hearing Aids Perth).