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What is Auditory Processing Disorder?

When kids are listening, but not taking in information

Mind Child Institute   



Caroline Miller

Some young children seem to find it unusually difficult to take in information verbally. Even though there’s nothing wrong with their hearing, they have trouble registering—or registering correctly—what people are saying, and remembering what they hear. They have trouble learning to read and expressing themselves clearly because they confuse the sounds of different words.

These children have a condition called auditory processing disorder. They have normal hearing, but for some reason they are weak in basic skills for decoding language that most kids develop naturally.

“The kids we see are having difficulty following directions,” explains Rachel Cortese, a speech-language pathologist at the Child Mind Institute. “They ask for repetition a lot. They seem to just kind of miss things in conversations. From testing we know that their ear is hearing the signal. It’s attending to the auditory information. But they have glitches when the brain is not assigning meaning—or the right meaning—to that signal.”

There are four basic skills involved in auditory processing, and kids who have these problems may be weak in one or more of them.

  1. Auditory Discrimination: This is the ability to notice and distinguish between distinct and separate sounds. This is crucial in being able tell similar but different words apart, like bat and pat, or seventy and seventeen. A lot of times, kids with auditory processing difficulties might miss information or misunderstand what you say because they mishear words,” says Cortese. “They’re not detecting the subtle differences in sounds.” They may also find it harder to learn to read and to express themselves clearly. When they’re speaking, they may mix up similar sounds because they don’t perceive the difference—say befs instead of best—and drop syllables out of words. Experts call this “syllable attenuation,” and it’s something kids often do when they’re learning languages but these kids continue to do it after most have begun to speak accurately. Kids with processing difficulties also have trouble rhyming, because their brain are not detecting that these are words that sound the same. For a lot of them, Cortese explains, that’s because they’re tuning in only to the beginning of the word, not the end.
  2. Figure-to-Ground Discrimination: This is the ability to differentiate important sounds from background noise, to follow verbal instructions or pick out one voice from the auditory clutter.In a classroom, a child who is weak in this figure-to-ground discrimination might have trouble being able to focus on what the teacher is saying rather than other sounds in the classroom. “It’s like a filtering problem,” Cortese adds. “What do I need to attend to? What do I need to filter out?”
  3. Auditory Memory: Auditory memory includes the ability to remember things we hear, in both the short-term and the long-term. Children weak in auditory memory have trouble remembering nursery rhymes and song lyrics, learning things through recitation, and remembering information unless it’s written down.
  4. Auditory Sequencing: This is the ability to understand and recall the order of sounds. A child with weakness in auditory sequencing will mix up numbers with the same digits in different order (84 and 48) and may switch the sequence of sounds in a word (ephelant instead of elephant). She may also have trouble recalling information presented in lists, and difficulty following instructions in sequence.


Some young children seem to have problems deciphering or decoding the sounds that make up language. Even though they have normal hearing, they miss a lot of the details of what’s being said around them, especially in noisy or distracting environments. These children may have a condition called auditory processing disorder, and that can interfere with both learning and interacting with other people.


Things to look for

What are the signs that a child might have auditory processing challenges? Here are some behaviors you or your child’s teacher might have noticed:

  • Doesn’t pick up nursery rhymes or song lyrics
  • Has trouble following directions
  • Doesn’t remember details of what she’s heard
  • Appears to be listening but not hearing
  • Often mistakes two similar-sounding words
  • Has difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments
  • Has trouble learning to read and spell
  • Finds it hard to follow conversations
  • Finds it hard to express himself clearly
  • Frequently asks people to repeat what they’ve said

These are all behaviors that can indicate auditory processing problems, but they are also behaviors that can have other causes. Some of them appear in children with ADHD or other language or learning disorders, so determining the cause of the behavior is crucial to diagnosing the child’s challenges correctly.

Because these symptoms overlap with other disorders, auditory processing disorder cannot be diagnosed just from a checklist of symptoms. While a teacher, educational therapist or speech-language pathologist can evaluate how a child is functioning in terms of language and listening tasks, the condition is only diagnosed by audiologists, who use tests that measure specific auditory processing functions.  Children can be weak in one or more of them.



Mind Child Institute



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