- Children who are perceived as not paying attention or not trying may actually be tuning out because they are having trouble understanding the words they hear.
- Children with a family history of dyslexia also have more difficulty with auditory processing.
- The parts of the brain that handle sensory input develop earlier than those responsible for focus and attention.
- Early intervention to improve auditory processing can have a significant positive impact on a child’s learning.
The following is a summary of Dr. Marty Burns' webinar “How Do ADD, Dyslexia, and Auditory Processing Disorder Overlap?”. Read below for the key takeaways.
The rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD in children over the last couple of decades has been a great cause of concern and controversy for parents and scientists alike. But new research suggests that for many of these children, the symptoms may actually indicate a more fundamental problem with understanding and processing speech.
While attention is closely related to sensory and language processing, they begin in different parts of the brain. Attention is mainly controlled by the frontal lobe, responsible for many of our higher cognitive functions such as planning and organization. This brain region develops slowly, only reaching maturity in the late 20s. And as we might expect, both children and adults with attention deficit disorders show lower levels of frontal lobe activity.
Our sensory processing, however, is concentrated among three lobes in the back of the brain, with an area called the angular gyrus integrating their audio, visual, and spatial information. These brain regions, which develop at a much earlier age, play a major role in language acquisition. And one of the crucial elements is learning to recognize the internal details of words, so that we can distinguish ‘bad’ from ‘pad’ or ‘moon’ from ‘noon’. By hearing speech in one’s native language, our brain eventually builds a map of all the sounds in that language – sounds that we then learn to reproduce and to associate with visual symbols.
Auditory processing disorders occur when there has been some impediment to the development of this mental sound map, making it difficult for children to distinguish units of speech. It’s important to note that this is a distinct problem from hearing impairment, as the problem is not with hearing the sounds, but with understanding them. However, hearing obstruction due to a prolonged ear infection or a cold can lead to auditory processing disorders by disrupting a critical learning period. And such disorders may have a genetic aspect as well. Children with a family history of dyslexia, previously thought to affect only higher levels of language learning, also show lower activity in sensory regions of the brain and difficulty with speech processing even before they learn to read.
Although attention is localized in the frontal lobe, it relies on the sensory networks developed in other brain regions. And this is where attention problems and auditory processing problems overlap. Attention involves learning to sort through all the sensory data around you and pick out what’s relevant. But you can’t recognize something as relevant until it’s part of your knowledge base. So it’s hard to pay attention to speech when you’re having trouble distinguishing its sounds from one another, or from other sounds in the environment.
The result is that children with auditory processing disorders may exhibit symptoms similar to those of attention deficit disorders, such as being easily distracted, not engaging in class, or not following directions. Teachers may perceive them as not trying, not paying attention, or being disruptive when in fact what’s happening is that they try to pay attention but can’t follow what’s being said and eventually give up. Such children may also receive a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD, with treatments that fail to address the underlying issues.
The good news, however, is that Fast ForWord provides targeted exercises designed by neuroscientists to remedy auditory processing disorders, which have also proven effective in addressing overlapping problems with attention and language processing.