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Auditory Processing Disorder And Autism

How APD Impacts Autistic Children and Teenagers

Auditory processing disorder and autism are commonly found together. Due to the fact that auditory processing disorder is so prevalent in the ASD population, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is working on processing tests as a way to detect autism early childhood.

While auditory processing disorder is sometimes due to hearing loss or sickness that impacts hearing in early life, it does not describe a physical hearing difficulty. Auditory processing doesn’t describe what the ear hears, but what the brain does with what the ear hears. Its about knowing what to do with what you hear.

Many of the learning difficulties children on the autism spectrum experience stem from auditory processing disorder.  While autism is a highly variable neuro-developmental disorder (Geschwind, 2006), up to half of autistic children have speech delays and impaired social and communicative abilities despite above normal IQ and language.

Often an inability to understand speech or to engage in conversation is the first clue of autism that parents pick up. What is happening here is that young autistic children struggle to extract words and meaning through auditory perception, listening.

These difficulties in autistic children can be traced back to auditory processing delays.

Recognizing Auditory Processing Disorder In Autistic Children

There is no known cause and effect relationship between auditory processing disorder and autism. Yet, the auditory processing disorder autism connection is quite common and getting stronger as more is understood about how the brain learns.

For instance, individuals with high functioning autism are often sensitive to noise. This hypersensitivity to sound is often also accompanied with what is known as hypo-sensitivity, lower than normal sensitivity to sound. At any given time, the senses may over or under sensitive.  Some autistic children may not even respond to their own name.  In short, for autistic children processing of sound and language is often atypical.

Additionally, the difficulty listening with background noise that many ASD children experience is quite  telling. It is the single most common sign of auditory processing disorder.  An exhaustive checklist of APD symptoms here.

Why Recognizing APD Matters

Delays in auditory processing impact language mastery, the key to learning and reading.  We think in language, we listen to the teacher in language, we read language in a visual format. Because APD impacts our relationship to language it can have a devastating impact on learning.

Much is happening within an autism diagnosis. High-functioning autism and auditory processing disorder often exist together.  There are even studies looking at using language processing speed as an ASD bio-marker. While it may seem overwhelming as a whole, if you look at the challenges of your autistic child, it may be that the auditory processing delays are a prime factor in any learning delays.

If you can improve auditory processing you may be able to help spoken language, listening, learning and reading.  And if you can help any of those skills, you will likely also help your child’s confidence and sense of self worth.

The Opportunity To Make A Difference

Auditory processing skills are cognitive skills that can be improve with exercise.  It is possible to isolate auditory processing disorder from other autism symptoms and exercise them narrowly and intensively.

The opportunity is this – children on the autism spectrum make the same kinds of reading and learning errors that neurotypical children make. Autistic children just make more of them.

Therefore, the software and therapies and treatments that help struggling readers can also help autistic children.  Gemm Learning provides Fast ForWord software, one of the most researched programs for auditory processing disorder in the world.

APD Program Risks For ASD Children – Cautionary Note

Working on auditory processing disorder to help autism is not always successful, as you would expect. Fast ForWord has a high success rate in helping auditory processing disorder and therefore reading and learning. However, in case of an autistic child there are two big caveats that parents should understand:

  1. Some children with ASD cannot access the lowest level of the program.
  2. Sometimes there are other significant gating factors at play.

Accessing The Exercises

Fast ForWord is an adaptive program with exercises that try to add speed and complexity at the students own pace. The exercises cover all aspects of auditory processing disorder — working memory, processing speed, phonological awareness, sequencing, attention, and reading skills.

The idea is to pull the student up in tiny increments in each session.  If the student is able to interact with each of the exercises at the starting level — at around a 5 year old maturity level — then the software will adapt, and make it a little harder when the student gives a certain number of correct responses. Once the brain engages with this challenge, the steps are small enough that most children are able to make gains that surprise most parents.

However, not all autistic children are able to interact with all of the exercises to the point where they are able to get off the base level and start improving. In these cases, Gemm Learning will often recommend a break of a few months to allow processing skills to mature. We may also recommend other programs that work at a more basic level, such as Earobics or The Listening Program.

Multiple Difficulties Not All Addressed

Because our software is adaptive and because cognitive skills react to exercise just like physical muscle, Gemm Learning fully expects to be able to improve the auditory processing and related skills.  In most cases, improvements in auditory processing skills will transfer to better learning behaviors that parents observe and better reading skills that we can measure in our pre- and post-testing.

However, in the case of auditory processing disorder and autism, sometimes the gains in processing as seen in the software do not transfer. This is not because the software did not help auditory processing. It will almost always help, if the student can make a start.

The reason though that it may not help, that these skills might not transfer, is because there are other delays in force beyond the auditory development. There may be delays that Fast ForWord does not address that are still hindering reading and learning.

You are a step closer to helping your child’s reading and learning because of the likely reduction in auditory processing disorder deficits, but there is still work to do.

Sometimes we can recognize the signs of other difficulties. For instance, sensory integration as seen in a lack of coordination and sometimes in ADHD symptoms can hinder learning.  And so if a child has signs of auditory processing disorder and autism-related sensory integration issues, we will be muted in our confidence to help.

Your Next Steps

Auditory processing disorder and autism are often co-morbid.  Many families of autistic children take the view that every little bit of progress is worthwhile. Others are concerned about loading their child down with too many activities.  So much depends on the child and on your schedule.

The best way to find out if your child is a candidate for our program is to call for a free consultation. About 15% of our students are on the autism spectrum with auditory processing disorder.  We try only to take cases where we think your child’s time and your investment will be worthwhile.