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From hearing sounds to making new friends, this 3-year-old had a year of firsts

After Ryan Aprea reacted to his mom's voice for the first time with the help of cochlear implants, the 3-year-old had a big year in 2015.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Since a video of Ryan Aprea’s sweet reaction to hearing his mother’s voice for the first time went viral last December, the 3-year-old has had a big — and sometimes loud — year.

Ryan was a micro-preemie, born at 25 weeks gestation. He was profoundly deaf in both ears until he received the help of cochlear implants in the fall of 2014.

Mom Jennifer Aprea said that while her son Ryan occasionally gets frustrated with his cochlear implants, he has more confidence now that he has them.Courtesy of Jennifer Aprea

Ryan’s mother, Jennifer Aprea, said the implants have changed Ryan’s life — he now turns toward sounds, responds to simple commands, and even attends a preschool program for children with disabilities.

Ryan's cochlear implants have enabled him to attend a preschool program for children with disabilities.Courtesy of Jennifer Aprea

At his new school Ryan met Liam Leach and Aiden Cummings, two 8-year-olds enrolled in the school's general education program. Aprea said Ryan’s teacher had mentioned that some older kids had been voluntarily coming into her class during their recess time to play with and read to her students. But, since Ryan does not speak, this was all the information Aprea had about the students, until earlier this month.

Ryan’s nurse sent Aprea a message and passed along a photo of Liam and Aiden with Ryan during his snack time.

Liam Leach, 8, and Aiden Cummings, 8, attend the elementary school where Ryan is enrolled in a special education preschool program.Courtesy of Melanie Mazza

“Liam had given Ryan a gift of Ritz crackers. I couldn’t hold back the tears — I knew it meant that those boys truly knew Ryan because those crackers are one of the few things he eats orally, so he takes them in his snack bag every day,” Aprea said. “The fact that he went home and asked his parents to bring this gift specifically for Ryan touched me more than I can describe. It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world to know that other people care about your child as much as you do.”

Aprea posted about the gift on the Facebook page for her cloth diaper company, saying, “Dear Liam from Room 10 ... The smiles on all three of your faces are the best gift this mom could ever receive, and I bet your mom feels the same way. I can only imagine how proud she is of you. I want to thank you for being such a sweet and thoughtful boy and for bringing so much joy to my son.”

Liam’s mother, Melanie Leach, said that when her son asked if he could take a box of crackers to his friend, she was so moved that she bought the biggest box she could find.

“He goes over to the special education classroom at snack time whenever he can ... and when he comes home from a day when he is able to help, he has so much to say,” Leach said. “He loves that Ryan smiles so big ... and he says, ‘Ryan has magnets in his ears. They are super cool. I know they help him hear us.’”

"He is very active," Jennifer Aprea said of her son, Ryan. "He loves playing outside and going for walks. There are many things he does now that I think, 'This never would have been possible without the implants.'"Courtesy of Jennifer Aprea

Aprea said she and her husband David have been amazed by the kindness people have shown their son over the past year as he has grown and changed, adjusting to the use of the cochlear implants.

“People love Ryan, and it’s not hard to see why," Aprea said. "He’s such a sweet, adorable and endearing boy ... and we are so touched by the kindness of others toward him. As a parent of a child with special needs, you constantly worry about what it will be like when they go off to school, but the teachers and staff (at his school) have been so amazing.”

"As a parent of a child with special needs, you constantly worry about what it will be like when you send them off to school," mom Jennifer Aprea said. "It's the most wonderful feeling to know that other people care about your child as much as you do."Courtesy of Jennifer Aprea

In addition to making new friends and obtaining enormous boxes of crackers, Ryan has been experiencing plenty of other happy milestones.

“Our happiest memory by far was that initial activation where he giggled at the first sound of my voice,” Aprea told TODAY Parents. “It’s really hard to top that, but there have been some great milestones this year — the first time he turned and responded to our voices calling him, the first time he said, ‘Ma!’ It’s also been great watching him interact more with his sister now that he can hear her.”

Before the implants, Ryan wasn’t walking. Now, he walks, runs and loves playing outside, going for walks and climbing on playground equipment.

“There are so many things he does now that I think, ‘This never would have been possible without the implants,’” Aprea said.

In addition to his deafness, Ryan also struggles with a developmental delay, vision impairment and chronic lung disease. He also receives the majority of his diet from a feeding tube due to an oral aversion that is also a result of his prematurity.

Jennifer Aprea said 2015 has been a year of making happy memories with her son, Ryan, her husband, David, and their daughter, Danielle, 5.Courtesy of Jennifer Aprea

“As far as how things will look going forward, it’s hard to say, and only time will tell,” Aprea said. “But he continues to defy odds and amaze us every day and we feel so fortunate that we have the opportunity to watch him learn and grow.”