Q&A on Aspergers and ‘hearing dyslexia’

Recently, I got a question on my post ‘Aspergers and ‘hearing dyslexia’.

When my highly imperfect answer topped a thousand words, I thought it worth a post of its own, because I think that while some Aspies might find it useful, others might  have helpful suggestions – much better than mine, which, if they are willing to share, could benefit us all.

Question:

My son is 16. We didn’t notice this “hearing dyslexia” for many years [perhaps we were too distracted by the other symptoms] but now it is overwhelming. Unless someone speaks very slowly and distinctly to him, my son will answer, “What did you say?” almost inevitably.
My question is: Am I understanding correctly that there’s really nothing to be done about this? My son can read great, can speak [though he tends to speak way too fast and mumbled; doesn’t seem like he used to as a child], but he definitely has the problem listed on this site.
Nice to know what it is, but beyond that, no suggestions?

Answer:

This is a difficult question.

Something can be done, but…

There are therapies which have been used on young children – 3-6 years of age – which are showing definite improvement. This therapy is in the form of computer programs where they do simple tasks (say, help frog catch a fly) based on the length of a tone…which later builds up into series of 2,3+ tones done in the proper rhythm.

The theory behind this is neuroplasticity: the brain is being trained, slowly but surely, to use a different bit of the brain to do the job of integrating time with sound. Because the different bit of brain uses a slightly different ‘strategy’, even to accomplish the same task, the underlying problem will not interfere with that task.

Of course, trying to get a 16-year-old interested in a video game designed for 3-year-olds is not likely to have positive outcome.

But, there are other ways.

They are less effective, but they can work. And, for a 16-year-old, they are more practical.

It really depends on the Aspie: what will motivate them and what will work for each one individually.

One thing that helped both my sons was music.

With a metronome. (One on their computer was more ‘fun’ than a real one – plus it’s much cheaper.)

The sounds are written down in the music score – not just the tones, but their lengths and pauses.

He creates the sound on his instrument (from a cheap recorder or little keyboard to a sexy instrument he’d be willing to play, this bit is way less important) based on what is written down and the metronome helps him integrate the time element into the sound which is generated based on the visual input from the music score. Listening to himself play is the feedback…

I think the visual component is important – ‘playing by ear’ lack the rigor of integrating visual stimulus with the tone and metered time elements necessary to help re-route the ‘time-sound-synchronization’ bit into another area of the brain. Then, as he learns the piece (motor nerve integration into the time/sound system), the metronome can eventually be eliminated and he will still be able to ‘keep pace.

This is not a quick and easy solution, but one that might make an improvement in a teen. We definitely saw an improvement in ours once they took up an instrument – but only an improvement…certainly not an elimination of the problem.

Of course, the ‘shortcut’ would be the videogames where the computer plays the music and displays the colour-coded notes which have to be pressed for a specific period of time, which information is conveyed visually. (Games like RockBand and so on.)

Now that I come to think about it, these are the ‘teenager’ versions of the young-kid games used in the therapy which has been demonstrated to be effective in clinical trials for 3-6 year-olds!

Music could not ‘work’ for me – not only am I not interested in it, I find music actively annoying. Yes, I am sure that my hearing dyslexia is at least partly to blame – imagine listening to music, but with some of the notes jumbled up…you, too, might find it gives you headaches. (This is one of the reasons I avoid shopping malls and other places that force music at me.)

And even though I took piano lessons, within 2 years, 3 teachers kicked me out as ‘un-teachable’…so, no, for me, music absolutely did not work. (For example, I still have difficulty telling apart the movie themes from ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ – the same pathetic bombast, the same notes, just slightly re-ordered. Unless I hear them together, I have to think very, very hard to tell which one it is…)

However, what did work for me (a bit) was learning to speak foreign languages. Practicing making the sounds in front of a mirror, getting audio feedback to make sure I eliminated mispronunciation, and so on. (If you want to get really fun, you can use an oscilloscope to display the proper sound wave pattern, then try to match yours to it – hours of fun!)

Learning a language (even without the oscilloscope), I could use the audio, visual and work in the timing with the motor nerves of speech.

And the hook that kept me interested in learning languages was the pattern-making intricacies of grammars. Yes, grammars: because each language has a different approach to this and exploring this logic puzzle set my endorphins hopping! (I get happy just thinking about it!) It’s kind of like algebra, but with words.

(OK – the different alphabets were fun, too – but grammars are like logic puzzles on steroids! Especially when you compared the grammatical ‘philosophy’ to the culture it was used in and the religious memes it best supported – what could be more fascinating!!! But, I’m off on a tangent…)

Again, I am nowhere near ‘cured’, but it certainly helped me become more functional.

I still have extreme difficulty understanding spoken words when there is background noise – like, hum of other conversations, but, especially, music. That is why I loath movies – their background music is not just icky to listen to and calculated to be emotionally manipulative (a deep insult to the audience – in my never-humble-opinion), but it makes it difficult to follow the dialogue in the movie. I usually have to wait to see movies till I can buy them and watch them with subtitles. If the soundtrack is particularly emotionally manipulative, I’ve been known to turn the subtitles on and watch the movie on mute – a much more satisfying experience!

In social situations, I often rely on partial lip-reading: it helps me make more sense of the sounds. (And, yes – that is one reason why I hate the cultural normalization of niqabs and burkas.)

Well, that is my best advice for how to improve your son’s comprehension. As to speaking fast and mumbling…

If I knew how to stop my sons (13 and 18 now) from speaking very fast and mumbling, I’d try it – because they both do.

I’ve tried to get them to recite poetry in order to get them to improve the cadence of their speech – but they are about as interested in reciting poetry as I am in learning to sing movie scores… (Many of us Aspies have a deep-rooted hate for pretentiousness – and let’s face it, much poetry is very, very pretentious.)

In grade 9, my older son took drama in school – that did help him learn to speak slowly and understandably. Now, when he remembers to do so, he uses that skill.

Another thing which has helped them was talking to their grandmothers: one has a hearing problem and does not tolerate hearing aids well, the other struggles with English. So when they speak to either one of them, they have to consider not just what they want to convey, but also how best to convey it. They have to tailor their words differently for each grandmother – which forces them to pay attention to their diction.

It is surprising how helping other people overcome their difficulties can be an excellent tool for Aspies to help themselves overcome their own ‘little things’!!!    ;0)

I wish I could be of more help…

If anyone ‘out there’ has better suggestions, please, comment and let us all know.

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)