New Research Finds that Hearing and Deaf Infants Process Information Differently

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As you may imagine—or as you perhaps know from experience—having a child who has hearing loss is difficult. Hearing loss affects how they learn, how they interact with their family and peers, and how they perceive the world around them. It impacts their home life, school life, and relationships.

Having an infant who has hearing loss or is deaf is perhaps even more complicated. While researchers have been aware for several years of cognitive development differences between hearing and deaf children in the preschool and school-aged groups, little research has explored cognitive development in infants.

A recent study conducted by The Ohio State University College of Medicine dives into the cognitive development differences between hearing and deaf infants. Study co-authors Claire Monroy and Derek Houston set out to determine whether early cognitive differences can be perceived. The answer was surprising.

Even in infancy, there is a marked difference in the cognitive development between hearing and deaf children. To determine this, researchers compared the visual processing skills in deaf and hearing infants. Many people have assumed that deaf infants and children compensate for their hearing loss by better processing visual information. However, this is not what Monroy and Houston found.

When an infant successfully encodes visual stimuli, they lose interest and look away from the object. In the study, researchers showed the babies a colorful object on a screen and recorded how long it took for the infant to look away, therefore indicating that they had successfully encoded the object.

After performing the same test with 23 deaf infants and 23 hearing infants (between the ages of 7 and 22 months), researchers found that deaf infants looked at the objects an average of 30 seconds longer than hearing infants. Additionally, the look-away rate among deaf babies was approximately 40% lower than that of hearing babies.

While the results of this research are surprising, Monroy and Houston hypothesize that the study may not indicate that deaf children learn at a slower rate, even in infancy. Houston explains, “Because they use vision to process the world around them, they may pay closer attention to visual objects. They might actually be processing more about each object.” This would mean that the longer look rates among deaf infants indicate increased cognitive processing, not impaired cognitive processing.

Houston and Monroy are also hopeful that their study and further research in this field will benefit deaf infants and children. Monroy states, “Understanding the source of these differences can really help us tailor interventions specifically for these children. And the earlier that happens, the better.” Future research should help to further increase our understanding of how deaf and hearing infants and children develop and learn differently.

If you have an infant or child who is deaf or hard of hearing, or if you believe your child might suffer from impaired hearing, we encourage you to contact our audiology practice today. Our skilled audiologist and caring team are ready to provide the care your child needs and help you and your child understand how to handle the challenges of early development with hearing loss.

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