Have you ever been to a talk, conference or a meeting with speakers who talk quickly while presenting new concepts? There is also some noise outside with people talking and setting out tables and cups for coffee or maybe lunch.

At the end of the talk could you identify and remember the key points being presented? Did your attention drift at any point during the session? If there were several speakers like this during the day how tired did you feel by the end of the afternoon?

These are the problems experienced by some children and adults with auditory processing difficulties (APD). Although a teacher may be speaking relatively slowly and clearly, many children with APD require more time to recognise sounds and words and to process a sentence. As a result, they miss part of what is said and so do not understand the information or the task to be completed.

Background noise exists everywhere and is important for establishing our location and mindset. Once we have done that, we can ignore the ambient noise. In a classroom noise seeps in from outside and is present from movement within the room, dropped pencils, feet moving, children shifting in their seats while working, central heating pipes and fans, computers and smartboards. An apparently quiet room is really quite noisy. Download a decibel meter onto your smartphone and measure the levels in your classroom. Most people can ignore these irrelevant sounds which are the fabric of the classroom and focus on the target speech, but some cannot. Complex noise from a mixture of sources and of different pitches and volumes can mask or hide parts of the teacher’s speech making it difficult to follow. Most listeners can fill in the blanks using stored knowledge of language, probability and contextual information. People with auditory processing difficulties are less likely to be able to do this. Slow processing of sound and problems with background noise are the most frequently occurring features of APD but there are others. All cause difficulty in understanding instructions and information. Concomitant problems of short working and processing memory add to the difficulties.

We initially learn language by hearing it spoken and poor processing of speech can lead to language problems. The most frequent ones related to APD are difficulties with the less stressed, short and weak aspects of language such as tense endings and pronouns. There may be difficulties in plurality when the number is indicated in the verb form rather than noun such as

The fish is swimming, or the fish are swimming.

Due to the problems with auditory processing, reading and spelling may also be affected.

Children (and adults) with auditory processing problems may also have processing difficulties in other areas such as visual processing and movement. Research shows that as many as 16% of children may have sensory processing problems affecting one or more modalities (Mukherjee 2014).

The problems experienced by the child may produce difficult behaviours which must be managed sensitively. Auditory processing disorder can co-occur with behaviours associated with the autistic spectrum, attention problems and developmental language disorder. It is important to determine the primary problem producing or contributing to these behaviours.

How can I help this child at school?

It is important to obtain a full assessment, so a tailored programme of support and intervention can be prepared. In most cases the child will need support throughout their educational journey and even into the workplace.

  • Modify the environment Preferential seating: near the teacher, facing the teacher, away from disruptive or chatty children, and central heating, air conditioning, computer or smart board fans.
  • Use wall hangings, blinds or curtains, cloths on display tables, to reduce echo from hard surfaces unnoticed in normal circumstances but it does have a distorting effect on sound. Rubber feet on metal chair and table legs, soft floor covering to absorb noise
  • A personal fm system will help many children but a full assessment is needed before going down this route.
  • A trained teaching assistant to check child’s understanding by asking him to what he has to do rather than just repeating the instruction
  • If instructions or information needs to be repeated use slow speech in short sentences or phrases allowing processing between them.
  • Use visual support whenever possible such as pictures or written notes or demonstrations.
  • Pre-teach key words so the child recognises them in lessons
  • Check the homework diary, provide pre-prepared sheets to be stuck in the diary or have it available on a pupil website.
  • Reduce the amount of homework bearing in mind it takes the student with APD longer to complete any task involving reading or writing, learning spellings etc
  • Be prepared to use alternative methods to teach reading and spelling.
  • Additional teaching in some subjects may be necessary
  • Allow use of a laptop for written work for older primary and secondary age pupils. Some will benefit from a reader and/or a scribe.
  • Additional time for tests and examinations is usually needed and can be arranged for national tests
  • A quiet room for tests to avoid problems with background noise
  • Be aware that apparent loss of attention is usually due to information overload. A quiet corner for respite can be helpful.
  • Computer rooms, swimming pools, high ceiling halls and gyms cause particular problems

At first glance this seems a very long list of adjustments, but they are mostly easy to arrange and once organised become part of the daily routine. Using the appropriate support for the student at any age reduces demands on teaching staff and resources. It also means that the individual can enjoy learning and achieve his potential. Many people with APD go on to complete training courses, apprenticeships and higher education, entering into professions or work that suits them and enables them to become successful members of society. Without the support in the early years this does not happen, and children drop out of education as soon as they can.

There is no single cause of APD for various reasons the brain connections develop differently. APD affects all social groups and all levels of intellectual ability.

Information sessions and courses are run from time to time by professionals working with children with sensory processing problems. These may be advertised on the SENCO Forum, the BSA website or local special needs interest groups.

10 signs of possible auditory processing difficulties in school

This is not an exhaustive list but are the difficulties most frequently found in the children attending APLLS clinic for assessment. Few children will have all these problems. It is essential to obtain a full assessment from a suitably qualified and experienced clinician in the field of Audiology or Speech and Language Therapy if you suspect a problem.

  1. Complains of not being able to hear the teacher but when tested hearing is satisfactory
  2. Has difficulty following instructions and requires frequent repetition
  3. Copies other children and requests help from them
  4. Appears to day dream /lose attention often worse in group settings
  5. Problems become more noticeable from year 3/4 as teaching becomes more class based.
  6. Difficulty with reading and/ or spelling
  7. May have problems expressing himself clearly in speech or writing. Grammatical and sequential errors.
  8. May present with some features of Dyslexia but does not fully fit the picture.
  9. Problems at school are at odds with perceived cognitive ability
  10. Problems with rhythm and pitch discrimination noticeable in music activities and possibly speech.

Further information may be found on www.thebsa.org.uk on the special interest APD group. Contact dilysatreharne@aol.com or APLLS1@aol.com

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