What Is an Auditory Processing Disorder?

Generally speaking, a challenge may be diagnosed as an auditory processing disorder (APD) when it involves a struggle with reacting to sound-based stimuli in healthy or desired manners.

There are a broad range of challenges that could constitute an auditory processing disorder. If your child has difficulty in understanding/coping with sounds and hearing, it could potentially be related to an auditory processing disorder. Some examples could include struggling to understand spoken language, hypersensitivity to noise, and delayed responses to auditory stimuli.

Ordinarily, our ears’ receptors turn sound waves into information that our brains can make sense of, by converting vibrations into meaning. Disorders emerge when parts of this system don’t go as planned, and the nature of a child’s individual challenge will depend on which aspect of the system is at play. 

To be considered an APD, the nature of the issue must happen at the brain level—meaning that there is nothing physically wrong or broken with the child’s ears, but rather that the source of the challenge is in their ability to effectively process, understand, or react to the sounds that their ears can in fact hear.

No two children will have identical struggles, and some will have a harder or easier time than others when it comes to the specifics of their experiences and challenges. Nevertheless, improving a child’s overall audio processing abilities is very important to their healthy development in many areas of life.

Although there are many different types of challenges and skills involved in audio processing, there are three key areas into which a child’s experience of an Audio Processing Disorder may fall—processing sound, comprehension, and memory/recall

Processing sound refers to the physical aspect of the brain interpreting audible sounds into identifiable words by understanding and recognizing when different sounds combine together to form meaningful words. 

Comprehension refers to the ability to answer the basic questions of the story’s meaning after hearing it, such as its who, what, when, and where details.

Memory/Recall refers to the ability to retain information that was heard and remember it after the fact, especially things such as names, dates, and key details.

So, for example, if you tell your child a story, does he or she struggle to… 

  • Understand what is happening in the story, to the extent where they can explain it back?
  • Know the names of the characters and the setting of the story?
  • Space out when you are speaking and need you to repeat details multiple times?

An APD may be present if one of these three areas appears to be disrupted or challenged when your child tries to absorb information via sound and speech.

Let’s examine these three common elements of an APD in more detail, in order to try and better understand what they mean and how best to try and deal with them. Each one of these areas can be related to various issues and can be impacting various parts of a child’s life. As you explore the nature of these three areas, consider whether your child seems to have trouble with any of the skills discussed. If so, you may wish to read further or get in touch with our team in order to determine whether an auditory processing delay may be present. 

  1. Processing Sound

Starting with an area that relates to processing sound, APDs often involve struggles with auditory discrimination—which means a child’s ability to distinguish between different sounds, and struggles to differentiate between the meanings of words that rhyme or contain similar-sounding letters. For example, a child with Auditory Discrimination may mix up similar-sounding words, like “Go” and “Dough” or  get confused about the difference between “Cat” and “Bat” when hearing them spoken verbally.

Children who struggle with this area will often have trouble understanding the concept of different vowel sounds, because they simply do not hear or recognize the difference. The child should be able to distinguish between words like “cat” and “cut,” where only the vowel sound has changed, and they must be able to do so solely through auditory skills—without relying on lip-reading.

Typically, the parts of our brain that deal with language can automatically differentiate between distinct sounds within words, to the point where we don’t have to consciously think about them. 

The effects of a challenge with auditory discrimination can impact many areas of a child’s life. For example, he or she may struggle to focus, and space out frequently when people are speaking to them, or even during class. If your child is struggling with this, it’s important to address it early on. If the challenge isn’t worked on and improved upon, it can lead to issues in the child’s ability to communicate, both orally and in writing. It will also affect the child’s ability to learn to read.

  1. Comprehension

As its name implies, auditory comprehension refers to a child’s ability to understand and focus on words that he or she hears aurally. Also called “cohesion,” auditory comprehension is a fundamental skill that children need in order to develop their abilities to communicate, build social skills, and understand the world around them.

Much like when a child reads a story visually, proper auditory comprehension means that a child should be able to hear someone tell a story and then be able to identify the who, what, where, and when of what it entailed. Within the age-appropriate level and expectations, every child should possess the skill of comprehending the meaning of things they hear and recognizing the details. If your child struggles to focus on the content of speech to an extent where they consistently have trouble understanding things that are said to them, this may be a sign of an APD that should be further researched.

  1. Auditory Memory/Recall (Both Short-Term and Long-Term)

This one is also very similar to what its name implies—it’s the ability to recall the meaning of something that was said/heard orally, even after hearing it. It applies to both short-term and long-term memory with regards to sounds and auditory stimuli.

Primarily, auditory memory and recall involve a child’s ability to retain and remember key details to things they’ve heard, such as names and identities of different people, dates, and titles. It also involves a child’s ability to memorize information when necessary.

Memory and recall are important because they can also impact other areas, such as comprehension. If you ask your child a question, or ask them to remember something important, they should be able to remember what you asked for long enough to process it, determine the answer, and then provide you with their response and/or accomplish what has been asked of them using that information. So too, if you verbally tell them a fact and ask them to remind you of it a few minutes later, they should be able to do so.  

Struggling to remember lyrics to songs and nursery rhymes may also be a sign of challenges with auditory memory. If your child seems to have trouble with these sorts of things, checking for an APD and learning about activities that can be done to improve these skills are both wise ideas.

Looking for More Information?

This is just a general introduction to some of the elements of APDs, but there is so much more to know and consider in order to make the right decisions for helping your child.

Smart Stride OT tests for and treats the above elements of APD, so please feel free to reach out to us for more information or with any questions you may have about the subject.

If you found this information useful, and would like to learn more or find out how our programs can further help your child, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Occupational Therapy can be a game-changing tool for children struggling with auditory processing challenges. Our team of experts at Smart Stride OT are always happy to chat and to assist in any way we can.

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