Do you ever wonder why your child can detect the sound of lolly wrappers at 50 metres, but appears unable to follow instructions? You know your child can hear, but how well can they listen, or understand what they are hearing?
For many of us, the ability to process sensory information has been impacted by overwhelming events during infancy and early childhood. When we were frightened, our bodies adapted, and, over time, we learnt to attune to background sounds, rather than focus on the human voice.
When a parent brings a child who struggles with signs of autism, ADHD, dyslexia or other sensory disorders, I usually offer a listening assessment as part of a general sensorimotor development assessment. My experience is that many children who struggle in the classroom have immaturities in auditory processing ability – that is, they may struggle to block out background sounds to be able to focus on the teachers voice, particularly in a noisy classroom, or the parent’s voice in a busy home environment.
Sometimes they may only be able to process short blocks of words at one time, or parts of sentences, and find it confusing when more than one person is speaking at a time. Your child may appear forgetful, often struggling to remember spoken instructions, particularly when delivered sequentially, or to discern small parts of a word, or phonics. As a result this can make it difficult to accomplish tasks such as reading, spelling and comprehension.
The struggle to focus in a busy environment may cause the child to feel overwhelmed, reacting either by “acting out”, or shutting down, instinctive behaviours that happen below conscious awareness, and indicate the child’s need for support.
When I recommenced study as a mature adult in 2005, I knew I couldn’t take notes and listen at the same time, so I chose to listen. I finished the first day with a massive headache, little memory of much that had been presented, and my skimpy notes were basically useless. At this point, I didn’t realise I had a learning difficulty. I just knew I had to work really hard to achieve anything.
Following a listening assessment in 2007, the assessor asked me “Ros, how did you get through Uni?”. I remember looking at him, stunned, thinking “Do you mean it didn’t have to be that hard?”, as it dawned on me just how much I had struggled, both at Uni, but also during my years at school.
Although I sat in on all the Uni lectures, my notes were sketchy and usually meaningless. I could tell you what the lecturer was wearing, their facial features, and who else was in the room, but very little about the actual presentation. My learning came from hours spent in the library. While my friends were achieving better results with seemingly little effort, I had to work very hard just to achieve a pass.
In the Classroom
My experiences in school had been similar, and I spent considerable time gazing out of the window. I remember the humiliation when a teacher, noticing that I wasn’t paying attention, my would ask me a direct question, and I would fumble to respond, feeling embarrassed. In high school, whenever possible, I would choose to sit on the periphery of the room, to make it easier to shut out the general background sounds and sensations, so I had more chance of focussing on the lessons.
Many children (and adults) today are struggling with exactly the same difficulties which often go unnoticed, as the child perhaps acts out, or simply shuts down to escape the sensory overload of being in a classroom. Maybe, like me, they just work extremely hard, and wonder why others are achieving better results. As one of my students said, “Mum, I know I’m not stupid, but why are the other kids doing so much better than me?”.
Signs of Auditory Processing Difficulties
- Often say “huh” or “what” or “can you repeat that”
- Often is in his or her own world, away with the fairies
- Easily distracted, especially if there are background sounds
- Delayed or unclear speech
- History of ear infections
- Poor voice control – often too loud, soft, or monotone
- Difficulty with written or verbal expression – bringing thoughts to words
- Easily startled by sudden sounds
- Difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, comprehension
- Avoids crowds, dislikes socialising
- Anxiety, nervousness
- Poor self esteem
- Difficulty focussing and paying attention
- Poor at phonics – deciphering small blocks of sounds
Things someone with auditory processing difficulties might say
“I heard and understood the first part of what you said, but I missed the rest”.
“I missed what you said because I was concentrating on my work”.
“I can either focus on what you are saying, or write notes, but I can’t do both at once”.
“I heard and understood what you said, but I cannot remember what it was about”.
“I read and understood the work, but I can’t remember anything”
“I understood the question, and I know the answer, but I can’t find the words to tell you”
Adults who struggle with auditory processing may:
- Struggle at work and higher studies
- Have limited career options
- Avoid social situations, and noisy places, such as shopping malls, family gatherings
- Suffer from poor self esteem
- Experience increased stress
- Often feel exhausted from the effort required to focus on listening and understanding
If some of the above signs resonated with you, or if you think either you or you child has a problem with “hearing to understand”, the first step is to book in for a listening assessment, which takes about 1 hour. Like me, you might be surprised (and relieved) with the result. At a follow up visit we can talk about options, and I generally suggest a program of filtered music, designed to strengthen your ability to process sounds. You will also receive a written report which you may choose to share with your child’s teacher and/or medical practitioner.
Program of Therapeutic Listening
The iLs (Integrated Listening Systems) program trains the middle ear muscles to focus in on the frequency envelope of the human voice. As a result, we become more confident in connecting socially, finding it easier to not only hear the words, but also understand the meaning in conversations.
My experience has been very positive, both for myself, but also with my students. I started to see changes in myself after only about three weeks, and it wasn’t long before I realised I could sit in a workshop and take useful notes, while listening to the presenter at the same time, particularly if the presentation is supported by something visual, such as powerpoint slides.
I found the music calming and somewhat addictive, and invariably felt energised at the end of a session. I also found I was more comfortable in social situations, and it was easier to express myself verbally. This led to increased confidence, and greater enjoyment of social activities. An added benefit of the music program was being table to take time out of my day “just for me”.
This program can be very effective for children who struggle with learning and behavioural challenges, particularly when combined with a program of integrative movements, prompting one boy to comment “Ros, I can block out the background sounds and focus on the teacher’s voice now”. Not only this, but his teacher reported that he was much more settled in the classroom, and was able to focus and get on with his work.
If you feel someone in your family is struggling with listening and processing sounds, and would like to learn more about how they might be helped by this program, please give me a call.
NDIS Participants – if you have funding for Capacity Building and are self-managed or plan-managed, a listening assessment listening and therapeutic support may be available as part of your plan.