23 February 2013

Auditory Processing Disorder

The Shell, by William Bougeureau, 1871

I've mentioned that I have auditory processing disorder a couple of times recently here on That Sort of Blog and over on Sparrow Tree Square. As I explained in those posts, auditory processing disorder is something like dyslexia for hearing--in the same way that dyslexia is a problem with reading, not seeing, APD is a problem with the way my brain processes sound, not with my actual ability to hear. APD can manifest in a lot of different ways, but in my case it mostly affects the way I hear over background noise, over the phone, or in situations that require me to listen closely without having any kind of visual cues. In situations like these, I often miss or misunderstand words, or fall behind in a conversation or lecture as my brain lags in processing what I've heard.

The cause of APD isn't entirely clear, but it seems to be linked to chronic childhood ear infections. I had a string of ear infections when I was a toddler, and my auditory processing difficulties probably began then. That means that I've had auditory processing disorder for almost twenty years, but I only just got my diagnosis this past summer. Even though my auditory processing disorder is pretty significant according to my audiologist's report, I was able to compensate for all of my childhood and most of my teenage years.

I was identified as gifted in the third grade, which means that I am what some people term "twice exceptional"--simultaneously gifted and learning disabled. Being gifted allowed me to make up for my poor auditory processing because I didn't really need my teachers' verbal instruction to succeed in school. Sometimes I would misunderstand class instructions, but since homework and test instructions were written down I was able to get good grades anyway. If I had remained in traditional schooling through middle and high school, where verbal instruction becomes more important and the level of work increases, I probably would have run into trouble from my APD earlier. Since I home-schooled during these years, my learning environment was a lot quieter and required a lot less listening.

College was where my auditory processing disorder really became a problem. Keeping up with lectures was difficult, and I had trouble participating in seminar classes because I was always a step behind everyone else. This same problem cropped up during chats with friends, sometimes with the added difficulty of trying to make out what people were saying over the din of a crowded dining hall or noisy quad. I would respond to questions as if they were statements because I missed a key word or an inflection, which I'm sure struck others as odd. I also felt terrible during orientation because I often couldn't understand a non-native English speaker in my group, and I hated feeling like I was making them uncomfortable.

My sister Maureen actually came across auditory processing disorder one day in the course of some other research, and she thought that it sounded a lot like me. At first I balked at the suggestion that there might be something "wrong" with me, but the more I read about APD the more I began to see how it explained a lot of my problems. Even so, I remained very uncertain, and put off making an appointment to see an audiologist for far too long.

Eventually I did make the appointment, and was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder. Simply knowing that I have APD has made many things so much easier for me, since I can now explain to people why I might seem not to hear them. I also qualify for disability accommodations for college, such as having a web-conferencing course I'm taking this semester captioned. When I take on-campus classes in Cambridge, I can use an assistive device to help me listen better. I'm also going to start a computer training program this summer that will actually help improve my auditory processing skills, hopefully bringing me closer to a normal level.

I wanted to write this post to share my experience with others looking for information about auditory processing disorder, and to have a place to direct readers when I mention having APD. I apologize for it being so long, but APD can be a complicated issue, and I wanted to try to explain it as best as I could. Because I'm not an audiologist, I can't guarantee that I've conveyed all of the technical information correctly, so please consult a reputable source if you want more information about APD!

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