Sensory processing for hearing, also known as auditory processing, is the way our brains process the things that we hear. We spend a majority of our day listening to many different sounds. For example, the sound of an alarm clock in the morning, the sounds your family members make while speaking, and the sounds of cars going by during the day. Some children are hypersensitive to sounds, and become overwhelmed with common, everyday sounds like the sounds of other children in their class. On the other hand, some children are hyposensitive to sounds and need extra stimulation to attend to certain sounds, like their name being called in a classroom.
Children that have difficulties with auditory processing may seek or withdraw from auditory input. They may have additional issues understanding speech, remembering instructions, or following a conversation. Children with auditory processing challenges are sometimes misunderstood to have hearing problems, when their hearing may be completely intact.
There are the four patterns of sensory processing: low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitive and sensation avoiding.
Low registration: A child with low registration does not recognize or process all of the incoming sensory information, and they do not compensate by trying to gain more sensory input to meet their needs. They may seem uninterested, and inattentive to their surroundings.
Sensation seeking: A child classified as sensation seeking does not recognize or process all of the incoming sensory information, but contrary to low registration, they actively try to gain this sensory input to meet their needs. They may be hyperactive, touch others often or engage in unsafe activities like jumping from heights.
Sensory sensitive: A child classified as sensory sensitive feels overwhelmed by sensory information, but they do not actively try to avoid the overstimulation, instead they may just display frustration. They may be easily distracted, and irritable, cautious, and uncomfortable in loud or bright environments.
Sensation avoiding: A child that is sensation avoiding feels overwhelmed by sensory information and will actively avoid the stimulation. They may run away from loud, busy environments, cover their ears when overstimulated by noise, or wear gloves to avoid touching certain materials such as paint.
A child who has low registration, or is sensation seeking may require extra auditory input in order to process their environment.
If a child has a low registration pattern for auditory processing they may:
- Need you to repeat things multiple times to understand what you are saying
- Not respond when their name is called
- Be unable to locate where sounds come from
If a child has a sensation seeking pattern for auditory processing they may:
- Be very excited with loud music or noises
- Listen to the TV or music with a very high volume
- Be described by others as loud or noisy
Hugo is a 4-year-old-boy. Hugo’s parents complain that he ignores them when they call his name. Hugo often does not answer or make eye contact with his parents. His parents find that they need to repeat things many times, in a loud voice for Hugo to acknowledge them. Hugo’s parents recently brought him to the doctor and confirmed he does not have any problems with his hearing.
Based on the case you can see that Hugo has a low registration pattern for auditory processing. He does not notice his name being called or the sound of his parents speaking to him and does not actively try to seek out more auditory stimulation or sounds to compensate for this.
With a child who has difficulty in noticing and processing auditory stimuli you can put them in environments that are stimulating with a variety of different sounds.
Strategies to assist a child with hyposensitivity for auditory processing:
- Have them play with musical instruments, practice humming, or sing. You can do all of these activities alongside the child! Making music offers children a fun, engaging activity while teaching them to attend to different sounds in the environment.
- To teach children to respond to their name, first practice calling their name in an environment with no distractions. Once they start to respond to their name with no distractions, slowly build up the distractions in the room.
- Use visuals whenever possible. Show pictures of your request, to remove auditory demands.
- If the child cannot detect where a sound is coming from, play games with them such as “find the noise.” Hide an object that makes a noise (cell phone playing music, buzzer, etc.) under a blanket, or table, and have them try to locate the sound.
- If the child prefers to listen to loud music or a loud TV, provide them with headphones to accommodate this need.
Children who are sensory sensitive or sensory avoiding to sounds may be considered over-sensitive to everyday sounds such as a class bell, a car honk, or the voices of other children.
If a child has a sensory sensitive pattern for auditory processing they may:
- Cry from loud or sudden noises.
- Be able to hear and become distracted by background noise others may not notice.
- Prefer the TV or music volume to be low, or off.
- Become upset while eating crunchy foods due to the noise from the crunch.
If a child has a sensory avoiding pattern for auditory processing they may:
- Run away from or avoid situations with loud or sudden noise such as a toilet flush, hair dryer, or lawn mower.
- Avoid situations or places with large numbers of people, such as an indoor playground.
- Place their hands over their ears in situations with loud or sudden noises. For example, during a fire drill at school.
Lia is a 7-year-old-girl. Lia frequently becomes overwhelmed by noises at school. During outdoor recess, she will cover her ears, cry, and run inside if the children playing around her are laughing loudly, yelling, or singing. She uses this same pattern of behaviour in shopping malls, and parks.
Based on this case you can see that Lia has a sensory avoiding pattern for auditory processing. She becomes easily overwhelmed by sounds from others in busy environments and responds by trying to avoid these sounds.
With any child that may be hypersensitive for auditory stimuli, or sounds, you may want to give them strategies to limit the overwhelming sounds in loud environments, and provide them with a quiet, calm environment wherever possible.
Strategies to assist a child with hypersensitivity of auditory stimuli:
- Use white noise. This can include noise from a white noise machine, a fan, or radio static. White noise can help to soften and minimize the effects of loud and overwhelming sounds.
- Give the child advanced warning anytime a loud sound, such as a fire alarm will be going off. Helping them feel prepared can minimize the effects of these sounds.
- Use noise-cancelling headphones, or earplugs to muffle the effects of loud sounds in overwhelming situations.
- Create a quiet, calming room at home, or in the school for the child to go to when they feel overwhelmed to calm their nervous system down.