For children who are deaf or have hearing disabilities, cochlear implants can make it possible to hear sounds. Unlike hearing aids, which simply amplify sounds, cochlear implants stimulate the auditory nerve directly. If young children get the implant and the intense follow-up therapy, they are able to "develop language skills at a rate comparable to children with normal hearing, and many succeed in mainstream classrooms," according to the National Institutes of Health.
But for children with other developmental disabilities, that training and therapy follow-up can be even more challenging, so many doctors don't advocate for implants for them. That was the experience of Joshua Copen, who has Down syndrome, and his mother, Iara Peng. Notably, children with Down syndrome are more likely than the rest of the population to have hearing problems.
Peng's efforts to get Joshua a cochlear implant ran into frustrating roadblocks until she met Kay Chang, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist and otologic surgeon at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. Chang described the challenges of cochlear implants for children like Joshua in a post on Packard's Healthier, Happier Lives Blog:
"Traditionally, developmentally delayed patients haven't been seen as ideal candidates for cochlear implants," said Chang, associate professor of otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "The electrical stimuli delivered by the implants have no resemblance to regular hearing. The brain has to adapt itself to learn the electrical patterns. Someone who is developmentally delayed isn't going to progress as fast as a child who is developing normally. However, just because it's a lot tougher to rehabilitate a child with developmental delay doesn't mean they won't benefit from it."
For Joshua, an added stumbling block was getting his family's insurance providers to cover the surgery and follow-up classes. But that issue was resolved, and now, at five years old, Joshua has had no problems with his learning comprehension.
Evidence is mounting that although more challenging to implement, cochlear implants for children like Joshua are worth the effort. John Oghalai, MD, head of the Children's Hearing Center at Packard, is conducting a study looking into how cochlear implants help developmentally delayed children. The blog post also highlights a 2012 study by Oghalai:
Oghalai found that the use of cochlear implants in deaf children with developmental delay can help them from falling further behind their peers and shouldn't be so easily dismissed. And the earlier the child gets the implants - 12 months is the minimum age allowed by the FDA - the better.