Could your child have auditory processing disorder?

A processing disorder could be the root of learning issues.

By Donna Fleming

If your child is struggling at school but you can’t work out why, you may want to consider the possibility they have a condition called auditory processing disorder (APD).

Here’s what you need to know about this hearing disorder, which can be the cause of learning difficulties but often goes undiagnosed:

• It’s thought as many as one in every 20 children may have APD. It seems to affect more boys than girls.

• Their ears process sound normally – they can hear what is being said, but have trouble understanding it because their brain doesn’t deal with the incoming information properly.

• The problem is likely to be worse in situations where it is hard to hear what is being said, or there are lots of distracting noises, like a classroom. Being given complicated instructions can also make it harder to process what is being said.

• Possible causes include a difficult birth or having suffered from glue ear as a baby or toddler. In some cases, it is thought APD can be hereditary.

• Children with APD are usually of normal intelligence. But they may have symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty understanding spoken instructions and being slow working out what to do
  • Poor listening skills
  • Problems with remembering things they’ve heard rather than read
  • Issues understanding different tones of voice and nuances, such as sarcasm
  • Oversensitivity to noise

• Having APD can impact on children’s ability to learn. They can miss a lot of what teachers are saying, or misunderstand it, and end up doing poorly at school despite putting in lots of effort. They can end up frustrated and withdrawn. It is not unusual for them to develop behavioural problems and have low self-esteem.

• Kids with APD often strain so much to understand what is being said at school that they’re very tired when they get home.

• Because children with APD tend to pass standard hearing tests, the fact their brain has trouble understanding what they are hearing often goes unnoticed. For it to be correctly diagnosed, an audiologist must do a specialised test.

• It can be tricky to diagnose APD in children under seven because their auditory system is still developing. But they should be tested if you suspect a problem – it is better to get help sooner rather than later.

• Because the problem is in the brain, it can be possible to correct it by using the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways, which are the tracks along which messages from the ears are sent. Auditory training with an audiologist can help kids with APD to understand what is being said, as can language and listening therapy.

• They can also benefit from having an education specialist with them in the classroom to work out the best way for them to absorb information.

• Wearing special hearing aids known as personal FM systems can also make a big difference. The teacher wears a transmitter microphone and the child has a miniature receiver. The teacher’s voice is transmitted straight into their ears and distracting background noise is filtered out. In some cases, children may only need to use these systems for a couple of years before their ability to understand spoken language improves.

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