The auditory system is our sense of sound. But it’s more than just hearing noise. It also allows us to understand where those sounds are coming from, what they mean, understand speech patterns, and attach meaning to words. Our ears also help us filter out irrelevant information. For example, imagine you are at a birthday party and multiple conversations are happening. Your auditory system would filter out background noise to hear and process the one specific conversation you need to attend to. We call this ability, sensory modulation, which refers to brain’s ability to regulate different sensory stimuli, essentially managing ‘how much’ of each sensory input to tune into at any point in time. However, some children have trouble with this. The part of their brain that receives and filters sound can work differently. Some children’s brain may pay more attention to sounds than it needs to. When a child has trouble modulating and taking in all the sounds happening around them, he or she can seem quite sensitive to sounds and have a bigger response or reaction to noises. The child might be more easily surprised by sounds than others or notice background sounds that others in the same space don’t.
Another interesting and important fact about our brain is that it is responsible for keeping your body safe. Sometimes, it will trigger an automatic safety response called a ‘fight or flight response’. This response is a protective mechanism designed to keep you safe. An example is when you jump out of your seat if you hear an unexpected sound. The brain tunes in to help us locate and identify the sound.
A child who is overly sensitive to sounds might feel as if he or she is being constantly bombarded with information. The brain can more readily initiate a fight or flight response. During this state, the emotional parts of our brain “shuts down” the thinking parts of the brain and its reasoning process, leading to difficulty engaging in learning activities. This can be a reason why children with auditory hypersensitivity seem to have a hard time focusing and sustaining attention on the given tasks.
Another reason why a child can seem distracted and unable to pay attention to you is that he or she could have difficulty ‘discriminating’ sounds. Auditory discrimination is the ability to notice, compare and distinguish between distinct and separate sounds. This is essential in being able to tell similar but different words apart such as “pat” and “bat” or “thirty” or “thirteen”. Children with difficulty discriminating sounds can also miss information or misunderstand what you say because they mishear words. This could appear as if they are not paying enough attention or “ignoring” what you are saying.
Here are some helpful tips:
› When giving instructions, ensure that the child is paying attention (eye contact, stopping what they are doing, facing teacher/parent) before delivering instructions. This helps you to know the child is available to listen and not get distracted.
› If the child is not paying attention or appears to be looking off at something else, rather than calling the child’s name out repeatedly (which can become extra competing sounds for the child to process), make a general comment e.g. “it looks like not everyone is listening. It’s going to be hard to know what to do when we are not paying attention.” Then you could wait to see if the child is able to note what you are saying. If the child doesn’t respond to this, avoid asking questions such as “are you listening? did you hear what I said?”. Questions may add stress and demand to the child who is already operating in the environment that is challenging for him or her. Try using non-verbal gestures to gain their attention e.g. coming to the child’s desk, sitting next to the child, pointing and gesturing at the board.
› Having a visual (e.g. list of steps) on their desk or whiteboard could be helpful too. This would guide the child to go back to the steps if he or she cannot recall or didn’t understand what the verbal instruction was. A general comment can be provided such as “if you aren’t sure what to do, everyone can have a look at the list on the whiteboard and see what they need to do.”
Author: Kaylee Cho – Occupational Therapist