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Auditory Processing for SPD—Making Meaning Out of Sound

Auditory processing is more than making meaning out of sound. It is an important part of how we interact with the world. Hearing and responding to a car approach or someone calling can be essential to safety, not to mention peace in a household.

Sensory processing for this system is not just using our ears. The brain has to interpret the sounds into meaning and make decisions on what response, if any, those sounds need. What about when there is more than one sound at a time? The brain needs to be able to tune out the sounds that are not important and select which sounds need attention in a busy environment in order to function optimally.

When walking through a busy parking lot the brain may be sorting through several sounds. You may talking to your child while a car drives by, a cart gets banged into the cart collector and plane passes overhead. The brain is determining what the sounds are, prioritizing them for attention and formulating a response.

In someone with Sensory Processing Disorder, there may be challenges with taking in the sound information, how the brain is processing or prioritizing it, or turning that sound information into meaningful action.

The sound sensitive child

A hyperresponsive child may be sound sensitive and will likely point out things they hear that you entirely missed until they mentioned it. (That would be your brain tuning out the unimportant sounds that do not require a response.) They may call your attention to a toilet that flushed a long way away in a public building or suddenly start talking about the plane passing overhead.

Things may also appear too loud to the hyperresponsive child. And don’t forget that with sensory processing disorder, things that don’t process correctly often come across as a pain response. So that public toilet that flushed in the tiny stall WAS loud to you, but totally tolerable and unimportant. To your kiddo, their brain may have translated that sound as painful. Our brains are good teachers too. It doesn’t take many instances of receiving a “pain” response before we learn to avoid doing something.

Solutions for the public toilet

So while we are talking about the public toilet, let’s talk solutions. So many kids hate using or downright avoid those loud toilets. Especially those crazy motion detector ones that you move an inch on the seat and the roaring flushing begins. No warning is the worst for some kids. One of my favorite strategies is using a post it note. Cover the motion sensor with the sticky note. It buys you time to make sure your child can go in peace and get wiped up before getting a surprise loud sound and rushing water.

Now, when do you flush the toilet? (Your sensory kid is telling you “never”). This depends on the kid. You need to meet them where they are at, the best you can. Provide a little challenge without making it so bad they never want to repeat the process. So for some kids, depending on age and safety concerns, you may let them exit the stall and stand by the sink before you warn them of the flush while they cover their ears. That may be plenty of a challenge already to some kids. Over time you can work towards having them closer to the toilet and even doing it themselves.

Too much

What can you do when your child is getting overwhelmed with daily sounds? First of all, if you aren’t doing a daily sensory activity diet, start one. A daily sensory diet helps your child’s system learn to process input better and can help them get regulated for their day. Using Sensory Sid Activity Cards is a great way to begin. You should also add some specific auditory activities (we’ll discuss a few below).

Next, you can consider having some headphones around. There are a couple different types to consider. There are some that cover the ears and are meant for noise cancelling or to reduce loud sounds and protect the hearing. These are great if your child is exposed to sounds they do not need to hear and they need a break. Take a pair along when you take your family to a sports event or performance, or even at home or school when things are just too loud.

There are also some headphones aimed at simply reducing the volume of sound-meant to allow the person or child to continue to hear what is happening (including conversations) but reduce the stimulus that can be overwhelming. Maybe you want to have both types on hand for different occasions.

The desensory zone

You also will want to consider giving your child a “desensory” zone at home. This is a special place that is just for the child to go to decompress. The bottom of a closet, a large cardboard box or even a cleaned out cupboard have worked well for some. This is space is not for a punishment, rather a comforting option the child knows they can use when they’ve had too much. Put some pillows, a special stuffed animal or maybe a favorite picture book in there. Maybe you want to leave their headphones there too, if this space doesn’t allow them to escape the noise level of the house.

Encourage your child to use their special space when you see them start to escalate or get overwhelmed. Even a few minutes in a quiet zone can help them regain control, regulate themselves and then rejoin in activities.

“Are they ignoring me?”

Some children have the opposite response to sound than those who get easily overwhelmed with it—they don’t appear to even notice it. A hyporesponsive child may appear to ignore those talking to them. The challenge may be in taking in that information, processing it in the brain, or in the response back to the body (be it to get their coat or answer the question).

Part of the brain’s job in processing the information and developing the response is determining what the sound is and what kind of a response is needed (be it physical, verbal, or none). This may also appear as a significant delay in responding. Perhaps some part of that process simply takes more time for them. This can be super frustrating for communication, especially if it isn’t understood why the child is taking forever to answer a simple question.

Again, the silver lining to these challenges is that there are ways to improve the overall function of this system and there are easy, impactful things that a parent or caregiver can do every day. The activities discussed below will help both a hyper or hyporesponsive child improve their overall auditory sensory system. 

Activities for improving auditory processing

You may find that you have to “wake up” a hyporesponsive child to prepare for an auditory task that would normally be challenging for them. This can be done with an overall alerting task (usually vestibular, or moving in space) like spinning, running in circles, forward rolls or touching fingers to opposite toes. 

Try the whisper/shout game. This is great for both under and over responders to auditory input. If you have the space that won’t bother others, the whisper/shout game can be very helpful in both modulation of tone and loudness and in attention to sound, words and meaning. You can direct the child to say something like “a cat sat on a fat rat” in whisper or shout level or start at a whisper and tell them “again, a little louder!” until they are all the way at a shout and then reverse to “again, a little quieter!”. This will help teach them control of their voice as well as help their auditory system learn how to take in, process, and respond to the input it receives.

Another good game to play for the auditory system is to play with rhythms. Clap or drum a short (think 2-4 beats) rhythm and ask the child to repeat it. They may need to have you repeat it. Work on advancing to more beats as they become successful.

Listen or make music together!

Learn words in a new language together. Hearing unfamiliar sounds and words requires a lot of focus on listening.

Rhyming games are easy to play in the car or while you are waiting in the grocery line or at the doctor’s office. Start with an easy word (like “bat”) and ask your child or take turns with your child in naming rhyming words. Don’t worry if some of these words are nonsensical, enjoy their creativity and move on; they will still be learning.

What can you hear? Bringing up the sounds you hear throughout your day is a great way to bring attention to sound and exercise the auditory system. You can also make a game of “name that sound” by having the child close their eyes and snapping your fingers, running their toy car, jangling the keys, or shutting a door and seeing if they came figure out what made that sound.

Auditory processing is a “muscle” that can be strengthened and it’s easy to fit in a few “reps” with any of these activities above. Have fun finding ways throughout your day to bring your child’s attention to sound.

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