July 2019 KERA News

Auditory processing issues are common in children with autism spectrum disorder. Yet there are no set standards for testing for what doctors call auditory processing disorder — when the brain's ability to interpret sound is compromised. The University of North Texas, though, is looking to help change that. Experts say auditory processing disorder affects about five percent of children in America, but it's often specifically associated with autism. UNT's College of Health and Public Service’s Department of Audiology and Speech Language Pathology by will be offering auditory testing services specifically for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Prof. Erin Schafer

Erin Schafer, UNT professor and director of graduate studies in audiology, talks about the program and its efforts to develop new testing standards.

On auditory processing disorder:

"An auditory processing disorder is often defined as an auditory specific or listening problem. Maybe the problem is between your two ears, they're not working equally, or it's just listening in background noise where you can't filter out a lot of times with a hearing test. We test pure tones. So for example 1000 Hertz, and we see if someone can hear it. But what we're talking about is way beyond the cochlea or the inner ear and it's processing all the way up to the auditory cortex in our brain, where hearing really occurs. And so what happens is somehow there's a breakdown of the ability to interpret that sound. And sometimes it results in really serious problems listening in everyday environments and also comprehending what's heard."

On who is affected by APD:

"Certainly adults and children; but what we're seeing in some of our research at UNT is that children here are even more affected because we have these developmental effects that are really normal. But then you add the processing effects on top of that and it makes it really difficult for the kids with autism spectrum disorder to function at school even. In fact auditory issues are the second most reported problem in children with autism spectrum disorder from their parents. And we know that school is so auditory focused and so one of the things that we really want to do in our clinic is focus on strategies to first identify the specific problems. But then second to find ways to address the listening problems particularly at school."

On how she got involved:

"A few years ago while I was getting my PhD; I was an educational audiologist in the schools here in the DFW area and saw firsthand the difficulties these kids had. So as I progressed in my career I started to research ways to improve their listening abilities. And one of those specific ways is the use of remote microphone technology where the teacher or the parent wears a microphone and the children wear receivers on their ears so that the sound goes directly to their ear."

On how remote microphone hearing technology works:

"It's fairly transparent. Where the sound that goes into the microphone from the teacher or a parent is transmitted to the child's ear at a really comfortable volume level because these devices while they look like hearing aids they don't actually have a microphone on them. It's just carrying the signal from the teacher microphone to the child's ear and they design it with very safe volume levels for children with autism spectrum disorder and audiologists can even adjust those levels to make it more comfortable for children."

On offering auditory testing services:

"Well the first thing we want to do is rule out a hearing loss. So we'll do a traditional hearing test with these kids. We also have some objective test measures if they're not able to participate in a traditional hearing test. And then second we want to really look more closely at the processing deficits they have. Number one the speech and noise; so how well can they repeat sentences or words that they hear in the presence of background noise.

Another area is assessing each ear separately to see if they can use the information from the two ears and put it together because we do that all the time in the real world. For example if I hear something off to my right I might focus my brain off to the right to hear that person while blocking out the information on the left. And that's what typical hearing allows you to do. But sometimes when you have processing deficits where your ears are not working equally you can't you can't do those types of skills."

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