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Children learn their language skills naturally. As infants listen to our parents interact, they quickly pick up on the fact that the sounds they make mean something, even if the details are missing. As parents also learn that different cries mean different problems. It is through this natural process that children learn the basics of language.

For a profoundly deaf child, that does not apply. Now the sounds are missing, and the moving lips are too vague to associate with meaning. Deafness is not obvious in infants. If the Critical Age Hypothesis is correct, then the most critical years for acquiring language skills may be lost before deafness is discovered.

Because sound based language is not useful, children must begin learning sign language as soon as possible. If a parent is deaf, teaching is much easier as both parents already know sign. Diagnosis is done immediately, because juvenile deafness is often hereditary. The parent's deafness provides a reason to test.

If the parents are hearing, the problem is worse. Recently it has become the norm to test for deafness before babies leave the hospital, but in the past deafness was often not discovered for several years. The parents themselves have to learn how to sign before they can teach their children. For hearing parents with deaf children the learning curve is steep. I have a relative with three deaf children, thanks to recessive genes. The oldest has a lot of problems, the youngest much better adjusted because by the time of his birth many important lessons had already been learned via his older siblings. Parenting style must change. After all, mom can't just yell out the window when she sees her little Calvin misbehaving. Children can't find their parents by sound, which is confusing. And they have a hard time relating to their hearing peers.

Learning sign is the key to language skills for a profoundly deaf child. Once they learn sign, then they can be taught to read. Reading and writing are more difficult for deaf chidren to learn. Sign is its own language, with its own grammar. Sentence construction is very different, and you can see this if you read the essays of deaf children. Hearing kids pick up English construction naturally because they are surrounded by it. For deaf children, reading and writing requires learning a foreign language.

Parents often make the issue harder. Genetic deafness is often accompanied by other physical problems. Birth defects run in packs. No parent wants his or her child to suffer a disability. Some are so determined to raise their kids in the 'normal' way that they ignore the child's problems. For this reason a few children don't begin learning sign language before adolescence. Imagine beginning your teenage years without any concept of language. These kids often never fully overcome that setback.

If you are a hearing parent, make sure your children's ears are tested, if they haven't already. And get help, which is available through your local school system. Hearing parents with deaf children will have to learn how to sign, but the child's language training cannot wait. Parents and children have to learn together how to sign. Residential schools are often better for the child, as they can be immersed in the language, and thus pick it up much faster. However, such schools are rarely local, and it is difficult to have a young child live away. Fortunately, local school districts are working to offer more deaf education under the special education umbrella.

Cochlear implants are an option, but they only work on very young children, or for people who had hearing but later developed deafness. Otherwise the areas of the brain associated with hearing will not develop, or be diverted to other tasks. They do not work exactly like ears. Using them requires training, which has been shown in people who had hearing but lost it.

Raising any child with a disability is a challenge. With deaf children, the most important challenge is that of language. With language anything is possible. Without it . . .

Much of this node came from conversations with faculty members of the Ohio School of the Deaf, where I spent a year upgrading the fire alarm system.

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