Auditory Processing Disorder – When Language Isn’t Language

Autism is marked by communication difficulties, one of the most common of which is auditory processing disorder.  From the outside, this usually looks like a person being slow to respond in conversation or not paying attention to directions.  But it’s not that we’re stupid or just not listening.  Sometimes language just isn’t language for us. 

Here’s how it works for me.  Sometimes, my language circuits will glitch out, causing words to sound like just a random collection of odd sounds.  It doesn’t happen all the time, just off and on.  It happens a lot in crowds or restaurants, places where I can hear lots of conversations overlapping all at once.  Instead of catching a word here and there, all the chatter blends together into something between language and noise.  I can’t follow a conversation with music or TV on because it’s too much sound competing for my attention.  If I’m off in my own head and not listening for English, random conversations I hear start to sound like a foreign language.

This has ups and downs, honestly.  Hearing a crowd sound like the Tower of Babel can be a very interesting stimmy distraction, as long as it’s not too loud.  The foreign language phenomenon has inspired me to create a conlang (constructed language) for a series of short stories I’m writing.  It becomes problematic, however, when it happens in the middle of a conversation.  One minute I’ll be fine and the next I’m totally lost.  With friends or family, that’s not so bad, but in a professional setting, I feel like it makes me look stupid.

How are autism and auditory processing disorder related?

There’s no clear link or cause and effect relationship between autism and auditory processing disorder, but they’re commonly found together.  As far as I know, nobody thinks that either one causes the other.  It’s possible that auditory processing problems may contribute to the language delays that are often part of autism.  Much like how kids who’ve had recurrent ear infections don’t speak well because they can’t hear properly, kids who can’t recognize spoken language wouldn’t be able to learn to talk by replicating it.

How does it affect people?

In kids, auditory processing issues can look a lot like ADHD, especially if they don’t have any speech problems.  They can’t focus well, they miss verbal instructions, they have trouble taking notes.  They also tend to forget their homework and lose the thread of conversations.  Obviously, all of this can cause problems in school.  These kids typically pass hearing tests just fine, so they may get labeled and medicated for ADHD alone.  To complicate matters, executive function problems like ADHD are often found alongside auditory processing problems, so some symptoms might improve even without a full diagnosis.  If a teacher recommends testing your child for ADHD, it’s worth asking for an auditory processing evaluation as well, just to cover the bases.

Adults are likely to experience problems at work.  We might mishear instructions, which makes us look incompetent, or have trouble maintaining a phone conversation (especially bad if you work in a call center).  Having to constantly ask people to repeat themselves gets annoying; people lose patience with us.  Socially, we’re the people who forget names as soon as we’ve been introduced and can’t carry a conversation in a noisy bar.  Adults with auditory processing problems often mishear another person’s tone of voice, too, which adds yet another layer to our social challenges.

What can help?

Well, there’s no magic bullet.  Kids with auditory processing problems can benefit from speech therapy, which can help them discern sounds more easily.  Classroom accommodations can be a great help, too, if the teacher will make the effort.  Simple things like keeping the child near the front of the room and away from noisy or high traffic areas, reducing background noise, or writing key words on the board can make things easier on these kids.

For adults, speech therapy isn’t really recommended because the auditory pathways are fully developed.  Sometimes a stimulant ADHD medication can help, if that’s an option for you.  Your best strategies as an adult with auditory processing disorder involve making your own effort.  Turn off (or at least turn down) the TV or computer if someone is speaking to you.  Ask your family or coworkers to touch your arm or get eye contact from you – whichever is appropriate – before speaking to you, so you can give your full attention.  Try to repeat what the other person said to make sure you understood it correctly.  For some conversations, maybe text or email could be a better option.  Those who care about you should have no problem making these small adjustments.

Auditory processing disorder can make life even more confusing for those of us on the spectrum.  It’s another challenge that we deal with every day, but we are up to the challenge!  Using text, email, and other written communication can help us avoid some of the confusion.

Auditory processing disorder - sometimes language isn't language

Have auditory processing issues caused issues in your personal or professional life?  How do you deal with it at school/work?  What’s your best tip for handling auditory processing problems?  

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