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At least one child in every New Zealand classroom is believed to have a hearing problem that can seriously affect their ability to learn.

Auditory processing disorder (APD) is believed to affect from three to 15 per cent of children and can be difficult to detect as it is not picked up by a normal hearing test.

As a result, many children continue to struggle with reading, writing, spelling and often lose interest in school altogether.

Dr Bill Keith is an audiologist with 40 years’ experience who now deals solely with APD.

He said the problem is worse in boys than girls and can be caused by birth trauma or early history of glue ear.

In the past year Dr Keith has seen nearly 100 children, mostly from Auckland, who struggled in school before being diagnosed with APD.

He said he is now getting about half a dozen new referrals each week, many from friends and relatives of diagnosed children.

Children with the disorder are not deaf – which is why it’s not picked up in normal hearing tests.

Their ears process sounds normally but the brain struggles to understand what is being said, especially when there are competing noises, such as in a classroom.

As a result children have trouble following instructions that are lengthy or require more than one task and that is often reflected in problems with reading, spelling and language.

“APD can present as a learning or behavioural problem and can cause underachievement because these children are missing out on vital information,” said Dr Keith.

“The problem lies in the hearing pathways and centres in the brain. Children are unable to extract the message they need from all the sounds and noise around them.”

Professor Suzanne Purdy, head of speech science and senior researcher in the Centre for Brain Research at Auckland University, said APD was often overlooked or mistaken for another condition that affects learning and behaviour.

“It is important that children who appear to have poor classroom listening skills, and who are struggling with literacy in particular, be assessed by an audiologist to determine whether APD is an underlying factor.”

Help was available from a FM device which blocked out background noise, enabling children to focus on what they were being told by a parent or teacher.

Over time FM use could also lead to an improvement in auditory skills.

Vauxhall Primary principal Aaron Kemp, who has a child diagnosed with APD in his school, said the FM devices made a huge difference in helping children to follow instructions.

He said children had hearing and vision tests when they start school.

If teachers felt there was still something wrong they usually asked parents to get more comprehensive tests which would hopefully identify something like APD.

Making Sense of Messages to the Brain

Thomas Crook’s reading wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t as good as his twin brother Alex and he was “hopeless” at following instructions, especially ones that involved doing more than one thing.

While many might put that down to different personalities, his mother Helen was worried there was more to it and starting making inquiries that would eventually make a huge difference in Alex’s school life.

“I was chatting to my sister who is a primary teacher in the UK and Thomas’ reading level was certainly not up to the level Alex was reading,” said Mrs Crook.

Her sister quizzed her further on a few subjects, such as whether he was very good at following multiple tasks.

“I said he’s absolutely hopeless at that. You ask him to brush his teeth and put his shoes on and he’ll come back with a sweater. I kind of thought that was just a boy thing and first thing in the morning but evidently there could be more to it than that.”On her sister’s recommendation she took Thomas to have his ears and eyes tested.

These tests found no problems, but staff at the ear-test clinic suggested Mrs Crook take Alex to the Sounds Skills unit at Auckland University if she was still concerned.

Several tests later, Thomas was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder – a problem in which the ear processes the sound but the brain struggles to interpret the message.

To help him, he now wears a discreet FM device at school – two tiny pieces behind his ears which enable him to hear his teacher’s voice more clearly while blocking out other classroom noises.

Thomas’ teacher Zane Cooper said he noticed a big improvement once he started wearing the device last year.

“You suddenly start seeing his hand going up and putting his ideas forward.

“The biggest improvement that I saw in him was his enjoyment at school.

“Once a child can get a full enjoyment out of being in the classroom, the learning follows.”

Mr Cooper encouraged parents to get their children tested if they were worried about possible hearing difficulties.

“You don’t want kids missing three or four years of learning because they can’t process instructions.”

by Elizabeth Binning, New Zealand Herald (Mar 2011)
(Published with permission)