Lily Hyatt is a spunky, bright 3-year-old. The articulate little girl loves playing with her baby sister, Harper, and watching musicals, especially “Mary Poppins.” The “goodnight song” (aka “Stay Awake”) is her favorite from the Disney classic. At first glance, there is nothing to tell you Lily has been hearing the world around her for only two of her three years. But if you look closely, visible through the pigtails atop the little girl’s head, you’ll see what Lily calls her “ears”: the outer hardware of her cochlear implants.
When Chad and Bari Hyatt’s first child was born in August 2009, they were shocked when doctors told them she had failed her Universal Newborn Hearing Screening; there was no history of hearing loss in either of their families.
When Lily was one month old, however, the family received the official diagnosis: bilateral profound hearing loss. Chad and Bari were carriers of the gene for deafness, and Lily received both recessive genes. Not wanting Lily to miss interacting with family and friends, the Hyatts began to explore the options to bring language to their baby’s life.
Bari, a former kindergarten teacher, and Chad began signing with Lily as the first step in communication. “I knew the alphabet but initially not a lot beyond that. We learned as we taught her,” said Bari. Lily caught on quickly and could soon sign for the things she wanted and needed. “She has always been a social child,” said her mom.
The family also began the process for cochlear implant surgery at Brenner Children’s Hospital at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Recognizing that Lily would need help adjusting to a new world full of unfamiliar sounds, the Hyatts reached out to the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Radford University. Part of the Waldron College of Health and Human Services, the clinic provides assessment, prevention and treatment of hearing, language, speech and swallowing disorders for infants through elderly adults in Southwest Virginia and beyond. Services are provided by graduate students in the speech-language pathology program with supervision by faculty members licensed by the state and certified by the American Speech Language Hearing Associate as speech-language pathologists.
A wide variety of services is offered, including multidisciplinary assessment of autism spectrum disorders, augmentative-alternative communication evaluations, assessment and treatment of cognitive-communication disorders associated with traumatic brain injury and/or stroke, central auditory processing evaluations, hearing aid evaluations, community screenings and a preschool language lab, the service in which the Hyatt family participated.
“The first three years of a child’s development are critical to his/her success as a lifelong communicator. Hearing, in particular, is critical for the development of speech, language and communication,” said Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders Corey Herd Cassidy, the faculty clinician who directs the university’s preschool language lab and worked with the Hyatt family. “The earlier the identification of hearing loss occurs and intervention begins, the more likely it is that the delays in speech and language development will be diminished.”
Chad works in the Radford University Athletics Department as the director of athletic training, so he and his wife were familiar with the clinic. Eager to give Lily every advantage, they made their first contact with the clinic when Lily was only a few months old. By the time she was 6 months old, they had consulted with clinicians and were on the waiting list for services.
“We try very hard to never turn anyone away, even with a waiting list,” said Cassidy. “We are dedicated to serving the patients and their families in this area as effectively and efficiently as we can.”
Lily had her cochlear implant surgery right after her first birthday. Her parents were by her hospital bed when they got word she had been accepted into Radford’s program.
“That was a great moment,” said Bari.
Lily began at RU’s clinic shortly after her surgery. For the first two semesters, she received individual services in two 45-minute sessions a week. The initial focus was on child-directed play. In other words, said Cassidy, the clinicians set up materials around the room and followed Lily’s lead for what she was interested in doing. “You can’t really tell a 1-year-old what activity he or she is going to do next.”
Clinicians used both visual cues and signs to communicate with Lily, teaching specific sounds through play. For example, to develop the “ba, ma and pa” sounds, they used bubbles. As the child makes the sound, they generate bubbles. From there, the connection can be made from the “pa” sound to the word “pop” as the child pops the bubbles.
“This allows the child to feel, see and hear the sound and word,” said Cassidy. “It allows us to create mental maps between sounds, words and meaning.”
In Lily’s second year, she participated in both group and individual services. Once a week, she joined a group of five toddlers and preschoolers, all with communication disorders and diagnoses, for two hours of story time, art, music, play and snacks. She also had an individual session once a week with a clinician from the group setting. The objective of this combination was to facilitate Lily’s use of speech and language while improving her hearing and literacy skills. The program also emphasized social competence through peer interaction to ensure strong communication skills in the community and future classroom.
Chad and Bari were involved through the entire process, consulting with Cassidy and the graduate student clinicians and observing Lily in individual and group sessions. The parents were also coached on strategies they can utilize at home to enforce lessons Lily learned in the clinic.
Lily’s therapy at RU, coupled with the dedication and determination of her parents, led to great success, so much so that she has phased out of all services and was a peer mentor this summer for other children.
“Often children will imitate positive behaviors they see in their peers,” said Cassidy. “Having Lily here was a great way to show our other clients—children and their parents—what is possible.”
According to her mom, Lily has done so well in the two years since she got her “ears” that she will not need special education services when she begins preschool this fall or later in her life. The only exceptions are a vibrating alarm clock and flashing smoke detectors at home because the outer hardware of the cochlear implants is removed before going to bed.
“When we began this process, we just wanted to give Lily every advantage possible to live a full life and be a ‘normal’ kid, and so far she has exceeded all of our expectations,” said Bari. “That’s not to say, however, that we ever wanted to hide the fact that she’s deaf. We are proud that she’s deaf and want her to be a part of that community.” The family is continuing to teach and encourage Lily to use sign language. In fact, according to Bari, Lily will occasionally choose to remove her “ears” and rely solely on signing to communicate.
The Hyatts say they are grateful for Radford University’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic and would recommend its services to other families. “The students are outstanding, and the faculty members who oversee it are incredibly generous in sharing their expertise,” said Bari. “It was well worth it.”