“Actually, I Didn’t Hear You”: Auditory Processing Difficulties

Auditory Processing: A system which allows one to discriminate between various auditory stimuli (sounds) and derive meaning from said sounds, bringing to conscious attention those sounds that are the most important/relevant to the given situation.

It’s the ability that allows you to dine out with your friends and family in a crowded, noisy restaurant and make out what the people in your party are saying.

It’s the tool that blocks out sounds such as air-conditioning units and the fans inside of desktops and laptops so that you can focus on your work.

It’s why some people will sleep through an alarm clock but will jolt awake to a knock on a door.

It’s what lets you understand what others are saying, even as they all have their individual accents and spacing and letter-clippings and tone-changes and little individual quirks in how they pronounce words.

This ability to process and discriminate sounds isn’t always consistent for anyone; fatigue, tiredness, boredom, and mood, among other factors, causes this ability to fluctuate.

This is especially true for those with developmental/learning conditions.

Auditory processing issues are a common symptoms of conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorder, and ADHD (the Auditory Processing Center estimates that about 43% of people with learning disabilities and 50% of those with dyslexia have such difficulties, as well as about 5% of the general population). There is also the term Auditory Processing Disorder/Central Auditory Processing Disorder that is sometimes used to describe these challenges when they reach the extent of impacting learning and socialization, although most people with these challenges who have been diagnosed with other conditions are not given this specific diagnosis.

In a learning environment, this may look like a student doing the very thing that you just told the class not to do; it may look like a student asking a question that you just finished answering; it may look like a student being distracted by the sound of cars outside or of someone turning on a television in another room; it may look like a student staring at the teacher and maybe even nodding along without responding to a question or request; it may look like a student closing their eyes when trying to listen closely.

I’ve been guilty of all of these.

Sometimes, my thoughts wander, but I usually do try to pay attention to what is going on around me, especially if I am in in a classroom setting.

As an adult, this has gotten easier, but I often “didn’t listen” to what was being said to me as a child.

Except that I was listening; I just wasn’t processing.

Speech doesn’t always sound like discreet units of sound to me. Sometimes, words blend and mesh together, and it’s hard for me to pick them apart. Sometimes, the shuffling of footsteps or the creaking of desks are louder than my own thoughts, let alone the spoken word (which, if I consciously hear them at all in that moment, sound like they are softly-spoken, under-water, and far away). I acknowledge that I am being spoken to, but the words aren’t discernible as words. Sometimes, my brain processes it after a brief pause; sometimes, it doesn’t.

This audio clip is a pretty good simulation of auditory processing difficulties [warning: it is a bit frustrating to listen to once the introduction passes, and you might get a bit of a headache].

When this mechanism doesn’t work as well as it should, “paying attention” isn’t always enough to make sounds make sense.

Here are some basic tips for working through a moment of auditory processing malfunction (though, as always, keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for another).

  1. Speak slower, but not soooo sloooowy thaaaat it seeeems paatroniiizing. 
    No one likes to feel as though they are being “spoken down to” (and, to be honest, no one likes to listen much longer than they have to, and speaking too slowly slows down the pace of the conversation). But speaking slowly enough for your words to have a split second of a space between them can make it easier for those with auditory processing difficulties to process your words.
  2. Speak loudly, but not SO LOUDLY THAT IT HURTS OUR EARS!
    Too much loudness can actually make it harder to process sound; we may be too busy thinking “Ow, that was painful” to process what was actually said. Then again, if there is a lot of ambient noise, then having your voice be loud enough to stand a chance against the background can be helpful. Of course, auditory processing is funny in that things that are louder or softer don’t always sound correspondingly louder or softer; the whir of the ceiling fan might still be “louder” than the person sitting three feet beside us. You’re by no means obliged to scream or yell, but whispers and murmurs do make it difficult to process speech.
  3. Give the person a few seconds to process and interrupt the sounds.
    What often happens with me is this: somebody utters a statement to me, the statement initially doesn’t make sense to me, I automatically say “What?” or “Huh?” in response to this confusion, and then, after about two or three seconds, my brain “re-processes” the statement, and it makes sense. Many people with auditory processing issues report a delay between hearing a statement and their brain making sense of it.
  4. Break instructions/narratives down into parts when possible.
    The aforementioned lag in processing can make listening to long sequences of information at once difficult; we may still be processing Step 1 while you’re speeding through Steps 3-5. If possible, give one step, or one part of the story, at a time, and wait for a confirmation of understanding. The spoken word is easier to digest in bite-sized bits (just like long reels of text are easier to digest in paragraphs and lists).
  5. Repeat after about 10 seconds of no response.
    The exact number varies, but there are times when the words just don’t “stick” the first time around. It may be that there was another sound in the area that “drowned out” the sound of the statement; it may be that we were still processing a prior statement. Referring back to 2., it’s helpful to give the person a chance to process it, but if it’s been a while, or if the person doesn’t give confirmation of having understood after a few seconds of the automatic “huh?”, then it is safe to repeat your statement again.
  6. If possible, write the instructions down/make the instructions visual (or allow the person to do so). 
    In my university classes, I am that student that writes down almost everything that the professor says. Part of this is that I am (or at least try to be) a contentious student; part of this is that written words make more sense to me than do spoken words, even if those words are written in my own chicken-scratch handwriting. If possible, have the steps written out; for students who have difficulties with written words, picture schedules and visual images can serve in place of this. This can also be useful for students with memory/attention problems who need something solid to look back on.
  7. Most of all, remember that this is not on purpose.
    We are not ignoring you because we find you uninteresting or because we don’t respect you. There are times when I close my eyes and listen with all of my brainpower, and, sometimes, that’s almost not enough. Chances are that we are just as frustrated with having to ask what you said multiple times as you are, if not more so. We genuinely want to understand what you are saying so that we can get on with the day (and because we care about you and all of that). Please don’t take our processing oddities as a sign of disrespect or disobedience.



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