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Focus First on Your Child’s Auditory Processing

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Auditory Processing Delays Are An Overlooked But Very Treatable Source of Reading and Learning Difficulties

When a child has reading or learning difficulties, parents are quick to seek solutions including tutoring, extra reading instruction and/or an IEP at school.  However, with a little more investigation, it  may be possible to identify the underlying source of difficulty with the goal of finding a treatment to resolve or minimize the impact of those underlying delays once and for all.

And if that underlying source of difficulty is an auditory processing deficit, the news is good.  Auditory processing is arguably the most accessible and malleable of all cognitive skills.

This very real opportunity to get your child out from under his learning difficulties once and for all suggests that parents should at the very least try to rule auditory processing delays in or out, using an auditory processing disorder checklist.

Finding Underlying Causes To Accelerate Learning

The quickest way to treat a problem is to find the cause and treat it.  This is well understood and common thinking in most aspects of life, including medicine.

For many reasons though,  mainly to do with the historic challenge of addressing deep-seated learning issues, going after a problem at its source is not as common in the field of education. Tutoring is a long, torturous and often expensive proposition that deals with the symptoms of a learning issue — it’s a band-aid at best.  Yet it remains the default reaction to most learning or reading issues.

This is despite the fact that neuroscience has come a long way in the last 15+ years.  There is a much better understanding of how to tap into the brain’s natural plasticity — it’s ability to change — to address learning issues.  These advances have opened up a quicker and ultimately less expensive way to help a struggling child thereby making school and reading a lot more fun and accelerate learning in a lasting way.

The way these applications and treatments work is to go directly to the underlying source of difficulty.

Of course, this is not easy, for two main reasons:

  • Identifying underlying problem sources is tricky
  • Treatments can be complicated and results uncertain

Outcomes Vary By Problem Source

There are 40+ distinct cognitive skills — in the areas of processing, memory, attention and reasoning — and myriad underlying causes, some known and understood, others less well known and understood.  However, there are two big areas that stand out as culprits for most reading and learning problems:

  • Sensory integration
  • Auditory processing

Treating Sensory Integration Is Tricky, But Not Impossible

Sensory integration, explained in more detail below, can cause ADHD symptoms as well as undermine perception and reasoning.  ADHD is a big one, as pretty much all learning skills, including reading, require focus.

Most sensory integration treatments involve physical coordination exercises, which need to be done precisely, take many months and — if only because of these two factors — have a mixed record of success.

While occupational therapy can be quite effective, particularly for younger ones, parents should research other ADHD treatment options thoroughly.  The best options require intensity and professional oversight, preferably one-on-one with a trained practitioner.

Sensory integration is the cognitive capacity to extract information from the senses of hearing, vision, taste, smell, touch, and motion, and associate that information with prior memories, experiences, and knowledge already in the mind.  Starting with research by NASA in the 1960’s, sensory integration and related vestibular (balance) issues (in the cerebellum), are being linked to ADHD and reasoning delays (Goetz, Vesela and Ptacek, 2014).

This makes sense.  There is an old saying in the field of neuroscience:  Neurons that fire together, wire together.  If sensory inputs are not synced, the “wiring together” does not always take place.  In fact, the lack of synchronicity creates noise in the brain, making it hard to focus and learn.

Sensory Integration Symptoms

The simplest ways to identify a sensory integration issue as the source of your child’s learning difficulties is to focus on physical activities that require sensory integration, namely balance, coordination and perception.  Clues that there might be an issue with your child will include:

  • Late in learning to ride a bike (balance)
  • Unusual difficulty catching and/or hitting a ball (coordination)
  • Gets lost on a sports fields (perception)

If your child has learning difficulties and displays any of the above symptoms, then a possible source of difficulty is sensory integration.  Before turning to a medication-based ADHD treatment, you may want to consider a treatment that uses movement such as Interactive Metronome or Balametrics, or have your child evaluated by an Occupational Therapist.

Treating Auditory Processing Delays Is Much Easier

An auditory processing deficit, as a source of learning issues, by contrast, has a more positive treatment profile.

Auditory processing is a cognitive skill that describes the ability to take in sounds and process them.  Auditory processing disorder or an auditory processing delay refers to a disconnection — sounds are heard accurately, but are not processed as accurately.  It has been described as akin to listening to sound through water –your hearing is fine, but it is hard to make out the words.

Because auditory processing involves sound, it can be accessed and exercised.  A few different therapies and software treatments report significant and lasting improvements.

This better efficacy of auditory processing treatments is good news because auditory processing is often present with other learning issues (Gabriele, 2009) and is in fact causative, i.e., the auditory processing deficit is more often than not the cause of the dyslexia, ADD, etc.  This should be no surprise since most reading and learning skills require language mastery — they are language-based skills.  This language dexterity requires auditory processing proficiency.

Recognizing Auditory Processing Disorder

It makes sense that auditory processing skills are a common learning progress impediment.  Language is lightning fast.  Language processing mastery — to be able to take in and process language at natural language speed — requires processing at 40 sounds a second.

This is how fast the brain must process to hear every sound in every word, such as the |p| in |spring|, for instance.  Or the difference between |bed| and |dead|.   The |b| and |d| sounds waves are almost identical, hence the tendency for struggling readers to mix them up — they don’t see them the same, but they hear them the same.

The ability to process at natural language speed takes a lot of stimulation and listening practice.  Many children need more listening practice than is available in every day life.  When that happens the result can be an auditory processing delay.  Evidence points to increased processing deficits in homes where children hear fewer words for instance due to being read to less often or having less verbal interaction with parents.  This lack of listening practice opportunities leads to less auditory processing skill development and therefore lagging reading and learning skills.

Auditory Processing Impacts Much More Than Just Speech

Most parents assume that if their child learns to talk at a normal age, then there are no language processing issues at play.  And so they look elsewhere for answers to reading and learning issues that crop up later.

This assumption is wrong.

There is a level of auditory processing required (think auditory pixels) to accurately hear words as whole sounds when spoken out loud.  However, reading requires a higher level of processing accuracy — more pixels — to be able to pick out the phonemes, the sounds inside words.This is phonemic awareness, the most crucial of all reading skills.

A child with even a mild auditory processing delay will struggle with phonemic awareness.  Or if he is able to discriminate between the sounds, i.e., he has phonemic awareness, he may only be able to do so with a lot of effort.  This means as the reading comprehension requirement lifts in higher grades, the distraction of the extra effort required to decode impedes reading success.  Either of these scenarios may lead to a dyslexia diagnosis.

Alternatively, listening in class requires the ability to listen and understand words at natural language speed over a period of time.  If a child cannot process at the speed of the language he will gradually fall behind.  Again, this is a much higher processing ask than just being able to hear single words and then use them in speech.

A child with auditory processing disorder will find keeping up in class exhausting.  This may cause him to drift off or miss big chunks of material, often leading to an inattentive ADD diagnosis.

These two crucial skills — reading and listening in class — are language processing skills. If your child is having auditory processing difficulties, one or both of these basic skills will be somewhat impaired.

Both of these diagnoses, dyslexia and inattentive ADD, are tough, complicated labels. A starting point, though, is checking for auditory processing disorder as a possible underlying cause.

Symptoms of An Auditory Processing Delay

While the list of auditory processing disorder symptoms is long, here are some ways to check if your child is at risk or should be checked out for an auditory processing delay:

  • Struggles with background noise when listening
  • Drifts off in class
  • Cannot easily sound out when learning to read
  • Loses momentum in reading in middle grades as comprehension gets harder

The Case For Addressing An Auditory Processing Deficit Early Is Growing

There is a case to be made for letting auditory processing issues work themselves out over time.  This can and does happen.  However, for many children, the number of words they need to hear before they learn to process language at natural language speed may not occur until middle school or even later. By this time, you child may be lagging the rest of the class by an impossible amount.

Children reading at younger agesThe Common Core State Standards and similar local state standards are creating a reason for parents to be more proactive in ruling auditory processing delays in or out.  Schools are applying a set of standards that amount to a reading schedule for your child.  Ready or not, fundamentals in place or not, all children are expected to meet a steadily escalating set of reading standards starting in 1st grade.

For children with auditory processing issues, or any kind of learning issue for that matter, these standards represent torture.  They create a much brighter line than existed before that separates them from their peers.

The “below standard” label has the potential to erode confidence in a profound way.  This unfortunate impact on our late bloomers and children with learning issues is one of the primary reasons most teachers and many parents oppose the use of standards.

Auditory Processing Issue Identified … What Now?

If it does look as if your  child has even a mild auditory processing delay, there are a growing number of online and in-center treatment options.  These includes auditory processing software programs like Fast ForWord software (for K-12, teens and adults) and Earobics (for pre-K children), sound discrimination and phonemic awareness courses like Orton-Gillingham, and auditory stimulation programs like iLS or the Listening Program (for pre-K children).

Outcomes of course vary, depending on the fit of the child for the program and the existence of other issues outside the auditory processing delay that may limit the flow of improvements in auditory processing skills into general learning and reading skills.  Despite that important caveat, the rewards from resolving a learning issue at its source can be quite profound and of course are life lasting, making it an avenue at least worth exploring.

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