Imagine yourself in a room. A large room where you can socially distance from other people. Including you, there are twenty people in the room. Now imagine that the twenty people are split up into four groups of five individuals each. And that each group is holding a conversation about a different topic.
The majority of people will be able to tune out the irrelevant conversations, while focusing on the conversation in which they are participating. The process will be unconscious. That is to say, they will simply tune out the extraneous noise without even thinking about it.
But, for people with auditory processing disorders, the process of tuning out irrelevant conversations, as well as random sounds, is anything but automatic and unconscious. Disconnected words from those three extra conversations, as well as the noise generated from an air conditioner or a heating duct or even the buzz of the electricity, will combine with the comments of the speaker in the group that the person is in to create a chaotic and incomprehensible babble of noise. It’s sort of like tuning a radio to a place between stations. You hear lots of static and you hear voices from both stations. And none of that makes any sense. But there is an expectation that you will listen to one of those radio stations and completely ignore the other one, as well as the static.
Because people who hear normally have automatically tuned out all of that background noise, as well as the interruptions from competing conversations, they have difficulty understanding why someone would not understand what they are saying. They may make a comment, such as, “If you listened, you wouldn’t respond like that.” Of course, the person with auditory processing disorder might not understand that, either. And so, the cycle of miscommunication continues.
As a person who lives with an auditory processing disorder, I find that misperceptions on the part of people who hear normally include such things as:
- the belief, often stated, that auditory processing disorder has an off switch (I’m still looking for mine!)
- the belief that, if people with auditory processing disorder would just actually put effort into listening, they would hear the speaker in a noisy setting (I’ve tried that one, too, and have managed to get a headache, but my comprehension has not improved).
- the belief that, if you talk louder, it’s going to help. (Well, no, now, you’re just being noisy and you’re just adding to the chaos, which makes me want to run away from it)
- the belief that, if you talk really slowly, it’s going to help. (No, now I’m just hearing sounds that don’t connect to each other because I can’t do phonics)
- The comment that “everyone has trouble with background noise” is not helpful, especially if, by responding to others without difficulty, you have shown that you are not having any trouble whatsoever.
- Find a quieter environment for the conversation. If I am in a room with multiple conversations going on, and I need to participate in the discussion, I might ask if we can go to another room.
- Acknowledge that my difficulty in comprehension is real and work with me on finding a quieter space or some other accommodation. The judgment-free acknowedgement is a great gift to people who struggle with understanding spoken language.
- Making an effort to facilitate communication is a wonderful thing. It feels inclusive and it shows people who struggle with verbal communication that you value their opinion. And it goes a long way toward clearing up misperceptions.