What might it look like if our hearing sense isn’t working well?
Some children and adults will have hearing loss. This can occur for a number of different reasons. Sometimes it might be damage to the ear drum itself. It could also be damage to the nerve that connects the ear to the brain, or damage in the brain itself. When hearing loss occurs, children may need hearing aids or a cochlear implant. They may also communicate through sign language, or lip reading.
The information on this page focusses on hearing and sensory integration or sensory processing. This is different to having hearing loss. These children will pass a hearing test without any issues. However, their brains process sounds differently.
The hearing sense and sensory processing
When the hearing sense isn’t processing the sensory inputs it receives very well there are two typical sensory issues: difficulties with sensory modulation and poor sensory discrimination. You can learn more about sensory modulation and discrimination in our post ‘What is Sensory Processing Disorder.’ Here we will discuss how these sensory issues affect the hearing sense.
As already mentioned, the information below relates to difficulty processing sounds in the brain once they have been heard. This is different to being able to hear sounds in the first place such as if a child is deaf or has hearing loss.
Poor sensory modulation of the auditory sensory
When the hearing sense doesn’t modulate sensory inputs well there are three different responses.
Sensitivity to sounds
Some children or adults can be sensitive to sounds. This means their brains can be quickly overwhelmed by noises. Sound sensitivity is often one of the first sensory issues noticed by parents and teachers. Children and adults with autism also often have sensory processing difficulties including sound sensitivity. This can be called hypersensitivity to sound too.
Some common signs of auditory hypersensitivity are:
When there is sensitivity to sounds the child or adult may have constant overreactions, or bigger reactions, to everyday sounds in the environment. This distracts the child or adult from what they need to be listening to. It may mean they avoid certain places, for example, children avoiding the toilets because they don’t like the sound of the hand dryer. Sensitivity to noise can also often result in a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response in the brain. We discuss this further in our post on auditory sensitivity.
Slower responses to sounds:
Some children and adults are slower to respond to sounds. They may need more time before they respond to the noise or to be closer to the noise before they notice it. You might observe:
Seeking out noise:
Finally, some children or adults seek out more noises and sound. They may make more noise themselves or deliberately move closer to sounds. Children who experience sensitivity will sometimes make their own sounds to drown out other sounds in the environment. It’s important to observe for this. If a child is seeking out more sound you may observe:
Poor auditory discrimination
Sensory discrimination refers to the ‘what’ and ‘where.’ For the hearing sense, this relates to the qualities of the sounds. For example, how loud was the sound? What pitch was the sound? Which direction did the sound come from? Was it a familiar noise or new? Was it your mother’s voice or your father’s? Is it a sound you like? Was there any rhythm to it? Children and adults with poor auditory discrimination skills can find processing all of these sounds more challenging.