I’m driving south on Melbourne’s Western Ring Road, shouting. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘No,’ he says.
I try again, in capital letters this time. ‘I said, look at the digger.’
‘Over there,’ I say, tapping at the side window before quickly returning my hand to the wheel. We’re driving past road works. There’s a lowered speed limit, which I’m obeying but some other cars aren’t. There are trucks—really big trucks—and there’s a concrete wall a few centimetres to our left.
He bursts into tears, howls. ‘I didn’t see it. Where’s another digger? Where’s another digger, Mummy?’
‘I don’t know. Please stop crying,’ I say.
We keep this up, or variations on it, all the way to Ballarat. Ninety minutes of me shouting, my son aged three-and-a-half not catching my words, or my not understanding his, which is worse. Over the past few months he’s developed an aversion to repeating himself and a sense of frustration at not being understood, in equal measure. So we drive and shout and occasionally scream (mostly him) and I try to speak clearly and slowly in order to develop his phonics and to show him the cows and horses and clouds and diggers, and try to not crash while I’m doing it.
His hearing loss is at 40 to 55 decibels down, depending on the ear and the tonal range of the sound. He has a common, treatable condition known as glue ear—basically gunk blocking his ears after infections as a baby. He’s not deaf, not even partially. He just can’t hear very well.
Six months ago his wonderful childcare centre mentioned that his speech wasn’t developing as it should. His vocabulary and comprehension were fine, so we went for a hearing test. ‘Mild conductive hearing loss’ was the assessment—borderline for speech development. Come back in three months.
In the meantime we started speech therapy; one-on-one work, plus me of course, playing games and working intensively on one sound at a time: F, S, Z, L … He progressed, but not fast enough to catch up, and his hearing got worse. After three months the new assessment was ‘not currently adequate for speech development’ and our family—me, his dad and his older brother—were shouting all the time, while his most frequent word was ‘what?’
The audiologist told me that glue ear will always eventually clear itself as the child’s facial structure matures. The child may be seven by then. So a few days before our drive to Ballarat, our GP referred us to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) to discuss treatments, including grommets. These are basically a tiny tube inserted in a hole punched through the gunk and the eardrum itself. Sound travels through the tube to the inner ear. Problem fixed.
They also require surgery with a general anaesthetic, can cause pain and bleeding, and prevent the child from swimming unless waterproof earplugs are fitted. (He loves the water.) There may be other options, but grommets seem the most likely to be recommended by the ENT; right now we’re waiting for our appointment to come around.