Learning Disabilities: Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

His mother watched as the teacher called her son’s name; he didn’t turn around. His back was to her and the classroom was loud. The teacher was losing her patience. “He just doesn’t listen to me. Either that, or he may have a hearing problem. Have you had his hearing tested?” His mother replied “I don’t have that problem at home.” Who is right? Perhaps both. There are a greater number of variables that might be present in the classroom that are not present at home.

As a classroom teacher and as a mom, I have found that what I needed my children to hear was always more effective if we were facing one another with minimal distractions. Classrooms are distracting for many reasons; when compounded by an Auditory Processing Disorder, your efficacy becomes a little more challenging, but not impossible. We just need a few more strategies or tricks up our sleeves.

What is Auditory Processing Disorder?

“Individuals with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words, even when the sounds are loud and clear enough to be heard. They can also find it difficult to tell where sounds are coming from, to make sense of the order of sounds, or to block out competing background noises.” (Source: Learning Disabilities Association of America)

So, is this a hearing problem?

No. People with APD hear just as well as everyone else, sometimes better. The problem occurs in the way the brain or nervous system interprets what he hears.

The mother in this story did take her son to have his hearing tested. The audiologist told her that “Not only is his hearing perfect, it was super. In other words,” she said, “he hears things most people tune out, the buzz of the lights, the noises in the hall, tapping on the chalkboard etc.…the problem is [that] because he hears them all at the same time and at the same volume it may be difficult for him to focus on one. Naturally, this can be very distracting.”

Signs and Symptoms Might Include:

  • Trouble Listening (noticed for a period of time).
  • Mishearing/discrimination problems.
  • Problems following directions.
  • Problems attending to oral messages.
  • Distraction by background noises.
  • Poor organization of verbal material.
  • Remembering what is heard (language-related).

(Source: American Coalition of Auditory Processing Disorders)

Some of these signs and symptoms may “look” like hyperactivity or acting out, when it’s really a coping mechanism. For example, a child with APD might be overwhelmed by too much noise all at the same decibel, becoming agitated or energized. Watch to see if this child becomes more rambunctious in a loud environment, like a gymnasium or grocery store.

Imagine you were subjected to loud music (that you don’t like) and asked to memorize two 10-digit phone numbers, or even just one. Could you do it? I don’t think I could. The solution is not to scold or reprimand, but to give strategies for tuning in or tuning the noise out. I recommend breathing techniques for feeling overwhelmed, or meditation. This one has been very successful for my students who are ramping up; I would rest my hand below my rib cage and quietly ask my student also to find his or her “calm spot.” The student would then place his or her hand below their rib cage and we would breathe slowly together until we felt calm. Try it, it works! Even for folks without APD, we all need a calm spot every now and then.


  • Show rather than explain.
  • Supplement with more intact senses (use visual cues, signals, handouts, manipulatives).
  • Teach abstract vocabulary, word roots, synonyms/antonyms.
  • Vary pitch and tone of voice, alter pace, stress key words.
  • Ask specific questions as you teach to find out if they do understand.

(Source: Excerpted from the LDA of California and UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute “Q.U.I.L.T.S.” Calendar 2001-2002)

The most important thing to remember when working with young learners is that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone can be successful. Once we know what their weak areas are, it is up to us to help them find the learning strategies they need to be successful.

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