When broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien’s son, Jackson, was 18 months old, he would bang his head against a wall until he had a bruise or open wound. In pre-kindergarten, he’d have numerous meltdowns throughout the day. He was a healthy, sweet kid, but he struggled to control his emotions. “We couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” says O’Brien. “It never occurred to us that it was a hearing problem.”

A life-changing diagnosis

When Jackson turned 7 and failed his hearing test, prompting a more extensive examination, he was diagnosed with bilateral, severe, sensorineural hearing loss with about 85 percent of his hearing gone. The news, O’Brien says, actually offered some relief because it all finally made sense. “I began to wonder whether his frustrations were all hearing-related,” she shares.

Once Jackson got hearing aids in first grade, his life changed. “I remember the day they fitted him. From across the room I asked, ‘Can you hear me?’ He looked up and — big smile,” O’Brien recalls. Today, the outgoing, social, happy sixth grader attends the same mainstream school as his siblings and is excelling academically. “He loves school,” says O’Brien. “He’s even taking Mandarin (a tonal language).” He’s also getting better at asking for help.

O’Brien credits Jackson’s team for walking her through all the necessary steps her son needed to take, from his hearing education service provider and his speech-language pathologist to all the doctors and audiologists. “I know we are very lucky to have these resources. That’s a huge advantage,” O’Brien admits.

“In the end, all that you can do for your kids — hearing loss or not — is to teach them to advocate for themselves.”

Learning to listen

His support system at home, though, is the key to his happiness. Along with his parents, Jackson’s siblings have always been patient and understanding. His fraternal twin, Charlie, whose hearing is typical, enjoys watching subtitled movies with his brother. His older sister, Sofia, 15, knows how to comfort Jackson when he’s frustrated.

With Jackson’s hearing loss at about 95 percent now, he can’t hear at all without his hearing aids. “When I asked him how he felt about his hearing loss, he wasn’t particularly emotional, but he agreed that we should talk to his doctor about options like a cochlear implant,” says O’Brien. She says having these conversations are a huge step forward. “Nothing is ever promised — you prepare as best you can and deal with circumstances as they come,” she says. “In the end, all that you can do for your kids — hearing loss or not — is to teach them to advocate for themselves.”