Is It Overstimulation?

By Eric Sherman

My younger son Cole has been wearing cochlear implants (CI) since 2005. He was barely a toddler, between 18 and 24 months old, when he rejected them.

The initial response from our audiologist was, “We just mapped your son, just do your best to keep the processor on his head.” Unique to every CI wearer, mapping adjusts the sound input to the electrodes on the array implanted into the cochlea. It is meant to optimize the CI user’s access to sound.

But after several weeks, and our audio-verbal therapist told us there was something wrong and referred us to another pediatric audiologist, Joan Hewitt, Au.D.

  Eric Sherman and his son, Cole

Eric Sherman and his son, Cole

We learned that refusing to wear CI processors is generally a symptom of a problem that a child can’t necessarily express. Their behavior becomes the only way to communicate the issue.

“Our brains crave hearing,” Hewitt says. “Children should want to have their CIs on all the time. If a child resists putting the CIs on in the morning, cries or winces when they are put on, or fails to replace the headpiece when it falls off, there is a strong possibility that the CIs are providing too much stimulation. Some children appear shy or withdrawn because the stimulation is so great that interacting is painful. Others respond to overstimulation by being loud and aggressive.” 

Hewitt says research discussed at the Cochlear Implant Symposium in Chicago in 2011 (or CI2011, run by the then-newly created American Cochlear Implant Alliance) addressed the issue of overstimulation. A study that was presented, titled "Overstimulation in Children with Cochlear Implants," listed symptoms that indicated children were overstimulated by their cochlear implants: reluctance or refusal to wear the device, overly loud voices, poor articulation, short attention span or agitated behavior, and no improvement in symptoms despite appropriate therapy.  

When the researchers reduced the stimulation levels, they found very rapid improvement in voice quality and vocal loudness and gradual improvement in articulation. Finally, they found “surprising effects on the children's behavior”—the parents reported a marked improvement in attention and reduction in agitation.

In “Cochlear Implants—Considerations in Programming for the Pediatric Population,” in AudiologyOnline, Jennifer Mertes, Au.D., CCC-A, and Jill Chinnici, CCC-A, write: “Children are not little adults. They are indeed, unique, and to address their CI needs, they require an experienced clinician. Most children are unable to provide accurate feedback while the audiologist programs their cochlear implant and therefore, the clinician must take many things into account.”

These include:

  1. The audiologists' past experiences with other patients

  2. Updated information regarding the child's progress (from parents, therapists, and teachers 

  3. Audiometric test measures

  4. Observations of the child during programming

  5. Objective measurements

  6. If age appropriate, the clinician will train the child to participate in programming

Many of the decisions made during programming appointments come from the clinician's knowledge and experience, rather than the child's behavioral responses. But your child’s reactions should also be taken into account.

If your child continues to refuse to wear their processors after a remapping, take into consideration your audiologist’s experience and mapping approach and seek a second opinion. When we met with Hewitt, she found our child’s map was overstimulating. Once she remapped using a different approach, our son had no problem wearing his CI processor again.

Los Angeles marketing executive Eric Sherman is the founder of Ci Wear, a patented shirt designed to secure and protect cochlear implant processors. April is National Autism Awareness Month. Read about how Sherman and Cole manage Cole’s hearing loss and autism spectrum disorder conditions in  “When It’s Not Just Hearing Loss” in the Fall 2016 issue of Hearing Health.

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