Porirua tot Jackson Bryan was three when his mum Natalie noticed something was different about his speech. While he loved watching Cars and Paw Patrol on telly, and chatting about his favourite shows, no one except Natalie could understand his stories.
Although his broken language provided adorable humour for his loved ones at times, it was clear there was a problem once Jackson reached preschool. Eventually, he was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder (APD), a challenging, life-long condition that affects his ability to understand speech and distinguish between sounds.
"Jack has always been a delight, but by four, he still couldn't say letters like P or B," recalls Pāuatahanui-based life coach Natalie, 39, who is also mum to Mia, seven. "He'd look up at me to be his translator when people just stared at him blankly, not knowing what he was saying. People are always in a rush and expect answers instantly, so this poor kid was just left for dust!"
Natalie hired a speech therapist, who visited Jackson each week to work on differentiating sounds, noise concepts and phonics. But it wasn't until he was seven, the age at which children can be tested for APD, that he was formally diagnosed.
"APD is a hearing disorder that has less to do with the ears and more with the brain," explains Natalie, who also owns a tiling business with her husband Phil, 39.
"Jackson's ears process sounds normally, but the hearing centres and circuits of his brain don't process incoming noise correctly. Pitch and noises competing in a busy environment aren't processed properly by the brain, and living with the condition makes daily activities and communication extremely hard."
Jackson, who is now 10, often feels tired at the end of the day and likes to unwind on the banks of the family's quiet Porirua farm, where they have six alpacas, two lambs, sheep, chickens, a rooster, three cats, Teddy the Labrador and even a guinea fowl.
"Jackson loves animals and they love him," enthuses Natalie. "Being around them is therapeutic for him."
Often, APD comes hand in hand with other diagnoses such as dyslexia, autism or ADHD. While Natalie believes Jackson may have dyslexia, they're still in the process of getting a diagnosis and he has struggled with sensory troubles throughout his life.
As a pre-schooler, he didn't like mud, puddles or touching sand at the beach, while some foods and clothing textures also caused him distress.
"He was clumsy and adorable like a baby giraffe, and so paediatricians and physiotherapists helped with his spatial awareness, as well as the sensory stuff," Natalie says. "I'd hate to think where we'd be without the help."
As a family, they've mastered ways around APD, including teaching Jackson it's OK to tell people when he hasn't heard something or to ask a peer if he hasn't retained information in the classroom. At home, it's little things like speaking to Jackson face to face, rather than calling from another room. His parents also keep instructions to a minimum.
"APD affects his working memory and so, short-term, it's hard for him to retain information," explains Natalie. "Also, when there are lots of people talking loudly in the classroom, Jack feels overwhelmed because all the noise goes through his hearing aids and is made louder. But if they're too loud, he tells his teacher he needs time out and goes outside."
Now, inspired by her son's journey, Natalie has self-published a children's book about the auditory condition, titled JC The Bumble Bee With APD. The rhyming tale follows the daily journey of a young bee and how his life can be different or challenging with APD. It also highlights what makes the fuzzy creature so special.
"It's such a tricky diagnosis and the world of neuro-diversity isn't straightforward, so I broke it down and kept it simple," says Natalie, wiping away tears. "I've done it for my son and the kids who feel isolated. We want kids with APD to see that, like them, JC can't hear. While a child's friends can do a hundred activities after school and they can't, that little bee can't either."
The devoted mum – who illustrated the book, including images of the rolling hills of Pāuatahanui and their beloved animals – hopes the story will draw awareness to APD and show children they're not alone.
"Working on this book with Jackson has made him so much more confident and proud of who he is," Natalie smiles. "I needed to show Jackson and other children with APD they can truly rock who are they."
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