For children with hearing loss, early intervention is crucial to speech development, and for two-year-old Arlo Gleeson, access to a local service in her home town of Port Macquarie has her shining.
“Arlo is a superstar and bright as a button – her speech and vocabulary are so far ahead of what we would expect. She only recently turned two and can speak in little phrases, which is just incredible. And when you think she has only had access to sound through her cochlear implant for less than a year, it’s even more amazing,” says Natalie Opitz, Arlo’s Speech Pathologist at RIDBC Port Macquarie.
Arlo was born prematurely in late 2016 and spent her first weeks in the hospital as her progress was monitored. After almost two months, her family were excited to be taking her home, when her SWISH test, a hearing test normally done immediately after birth, showed a potential hearing loss.
‘My heart just sank,” Mum, Lauren, recalls. “We had watched our little girl fight to reach this point, and it felt then like a setback. I had no experience with hearing loss, and I immediately started to wonder if my baby would ever speak.”
The family were given a social worker at John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from their family home in Port Macquarie. Lauren recalls that the social worker was amazing and immediately told them Arlo would be okay. “She was our fairy godmother,” Lauren says. “She helped us get in touch with RIDBC and put us on the track to get the right support for Arlo.”
“Our sessions with RIDBC have always been incredible,” says Lauren. “They gave us games we could play with Arlo at just six months old that would help her to build language and speech. They also gave us the confidence that we could give our child the support she needs.”
“Early intervention is critical to put children with hearing loss on a pathway to reach speech, language and learning outcomes,” says Natalie. “Of course, it’s important for Arlo, but it’s important for the family too. For many parents, this is new territory and they are at a loss as to what to expect. We work with the family to set goals and give them tools to facilitate their children’s development.”
With a bilateral sensory neural hearing loss in both ears that could deteriorate over time, it was quickly identified that Arlo was eligible for a cochlear implant. “We didn’t have to think about the decision too much when it came to Arlo getting implanted,” Lauren says. “We wanted to give her that stability in her hearing, to know she would always have access to sound.”
Lauren says that while the decision was pretty clear for her and her family, when it came to the surgery she began to worry. “She was so small, and the surgery seemed like a lot for a little one,” she says. She was surprised, however, when Arlo was able to go home after just two nights. “We were sent home really quickly, and Arlo was herself again almost immediately – we were so amazed by how quick the procedure was, and how quickly she recovered,” Lauren says.
Twelve days later in March 2018, Arlo had her implants switched on at the RIDBC centre in Port Macquarie. “Her switch on moment was fantastic for the family. Just a great moment,” Lauren remembers, fondly.
Now the family attend regular appointments at the RIDBC Port Macquarie, for technical mapping and speech pathology, and as Arlo grows, they will have local access to the range of services she may need at different stages.
With more than 140 people in the mid north coast region with cochlear implants, providing local services is vital to ensure Australians of all ages have access to surgery and support without the need for travel to a major centre. “Without this local centre, families like Arlo’s, could be travelling four or five hours to Sydney for these services, but this way, Arlo can attend an appointment that fits in with her sleeps, and she is not fatigued after a long drive,” explains Natalie.
“Arlo is doing really well, and it’s incredible to have a service that means we can stay at home and still get her all the support she needs,” Lauren adds.