Aspergers and ‘hearing dyslexia’

This is another one of my very personal looks at living with Aspergers – both as an Aspie, and as a parent of Aspie kids.  While doctors and psychologists can tell us a lot about Asperger Syndrome, it seems to affect different people differently – even siblings can have incredibly different ways in which they are affected.  Not only does each person’s underlying personality determine the best (and worst) ways of handling it, there are often many physiological conditions which occur along with it and affect the skill-set available to be drawn upon.

One of the conditions that often occurs along with Aspergers and/or ADD is dyslexia – I know that when I was learning to read and write, I had a lot of trouble with it (and, to a very small degree, I still do).  What surprised me, however, was that just like people with dyslexia see letters either reversed, or in the wrong order, some people hear sounds ‘jumbled up’ in much the same way!  The technical term for this is Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), but I find it easier to think of it as ‘sound dyslexia’ or ‘hearing dyslexia’.  Apparently, this condition is not easy to test for, and many doctors do not even think of testing for it….yet it can have very major impact on the development of a child learning language for the very first time – whether neurotypical or Aspergers or Autistic.

Just like people with dyslexia can see letters reversed, or in the wrong order, people with APD can hear sound within words ‘reversed’, or lasting the wrong length of time so several sounds become superimposed over top of each other and very, very difficult to ‘separate out’ and understand….especially when one is just learning that different sequences of sounds can actually carry different meanings. 

Please, imagine that you have this – not correctible by a hearing aid, because the problem is not mechanical, but by the way sound is processed in the brain.  Because you cannot effectively (or reliably – the problem is notoriously intermittent) differentiate between words or phrases, it is very difficult to ‘catalogue’ or ‘make sense of’ sounds and their associated meanings.  Now add to it the Aspies’ inability to comprehend facial expressions, tone of voice or body language.  Frankly, I do not know how these young children can make any sense of the world about them at all!

How to overcome this?

One has to work within the child’s interests and strengths.  It is my hope that sharing what worked for our younger son may help you develop strategies which may work for yours.

When our younger son had problems learning to speak, it did not look to us like a problem.  Instead, it looked as a willful behaviour:  we were told he was refusing to use language in order to manipulate us, the parents.  It was a call for attention, we were told. 

But, that just did not ring true to me.  While we would read him every evening, and while he had our full focus and attention, he would still be unable to follow even the sipmlest stories.  He loved counting picture books with a number and that ‘count’ of objects.  That he could follow, and would lift the correct number of fingers – even try to say the numbers.  Sometimes, he even liked ‘word’ books – ones that showed a picture of an object and had the word for it written beneath the object.

But the moment we tried to read him even very simple stories, we lost him.  He would fidget, climb, jump, and generally do anything to demonstrate his complete lack of interest.  Thinking he wanted more of the attention focused on him (as we were told this was attention-getting behaviour), I would start telling him stories.  This way, there was no book and he was my sole focus.  Same reaction.

Eventually, he got interested – but on a very different level.  Accepting the ‘book routine’, he started picking out letters, one at a time.  The joy on his face as he would yell over top of my voice (as I was reading):  “A!!!  A!!!  A!!!”  I would confirm that yes, that was indeed ‘A’, and tell him how clever he was to have recognized it.

He’s settle down and look interested.  But he was not interested in the story.  No, because I would barely read another paragraph when he woud get excited again:  “D!!! D!!! D!!!”  Again, I would praise him, and try to resume reading.  But, it was not a ‘relaxing time’ that would get one ready for bedtime…

Eventually, I gave up reading him stories and broke out the ‘Alphabet books’.  I had thought he was too young for them, but if he loved reading the letters, I whas happy to oblige him.  For the first time, he was making ‘human’ sounds, one letter at a time!  And at this point, I saw that as a reason to celebrate.

We also added ‘bathtime’ to the fun.  He loved his letters, so I got soap crayons and we had great fun using the white ceramic tiles on the wall by the tub as our canvas!  I would let him pick a letter and then write every three-letter word which started with that letter.  As I would write them, I would read the letter, then the word!  And, surely enough, my son would read each letter with me.  B-A-T.  BA-. BAT.

Miracle of miracles:  he learned to speak!

Of course, he would NOT EVER repeat a word until he had learned what letters it was made up of, how it broke down to syllables, and how it fit together.  I suppose he was the only toddler I had ever encountered who had learned to READ before he learned to SPEAK!!!

Now, he has a little lisp when he speaks, but he has an above-average vocabulary.  

Another factor, which was happening at this time, and which I think was incredibly beneficial to our son as he tried to decode the mystery of communications, was his interaction with our dog.  Good natured and well trained, he was also very intelligent – and showed incredible patience with both the boys.  And while any pet will be beneficial, a well trained dog in the home can be very valuable in a situation like this. 

Why? 

Because the communication lines are so very clear.  Our dog was trained to obey a limited number very distinct-sounding commands, accompanied by hand signals.  In addition, the dog’s response to these commands was consistent and predictable.  His overall body language was also a much ‘simpler’ communication than the ‘human’ type.  To a young person who is having trouble understanding the underlying rules of communication, this can just be the key to unlock the mystery. 

We did not ‘get’ what was happening, and thought he was just ‘playing pretend’ when our son began to immitate the dog’s actions when we would give the dog a command.  And since the dog loved to ‘practice’ his commands for treats every day, I switched the ‘treat’ from a dog bicuit to an animal cracker….and let them both practice together. 

It may seem silly to people who are not ‘dog lovers’, but many kids love pretending to be ‘the dog’.  It is partly a game, and partly to see what reaction this would get.  And since I thought it was fun, and I was happy that he was interacting, I was delighted.  I would say ‘Sit!’ – and both boy and dog would sit!  I would give them a cracker each, they would happily eat them up, and look to me for the next command!  And he was happy – he finally understood some ‘stuff’!

Perhaps not every child would respond in this way, but then again, my guy is one of a kind!  Yet, I do hope that his story might help people understand that kids who ‘seem’ to be ‘manipulative’ or ‘acting out’ might not be doing that at all.  They may simply not understand what is going or around them, and be trying ‘weird’ ways to make sense of them.  And they may also be very frustrated….

But if you can find the key that will unlock the mystery, they will learn!  And they will be much, much happier – it is rewarding for everyone!  Even the dog…     ;o)

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