Our Auditory System: Interpreting Sounds in the Environment
When you see this picture, what do you hear? Calm, bubbling water that soothes you? Or loud, crashing waves that are a bit overwhelming? Maybe in the middle?
Our auditory system is experiencing so many sensations every single day.
To back up, our auditory system is our sense of sound! Your auditory system is quite complex and works with your vestibular system (more information on this coming soon!), which coordinates balance and movement.
There is so much information to share, but to keep it simple…
There are two main parts of the auditory system we are going to discuss today:
Defensive and Discrimination.
The defensive part of our auditory system develops right away when a child is born, helping newborn babies understand sounds and interpret whether they are a threat or not. This is why babies startle so easily!
Then comes discrimination. This occurs when we start to interpret more about the sounds we hear, such as the location they are coming from, what the sounds are, and/or even filtering out unwanted noises around us.
When these two parts of the sensory system aren’t working together, it can be difficult to process and respond to auditory input around you.
Sensory modulation is how our brain handles the sensory input we are receiving at any given time. If you think about it, throughout our entire day we are exposed to so many different sensations, ALL the time! Sensory modulation allows us to filter out what is unnecessary input and focus and attend to what is important. This is simplifying it, but….as with any sensory system, when components are not processing correctly or working together, the result can be described as difficulties with modulation.
When children experience over-responsiveness to auditory input, they may:
Startle easily or react quickly to nearby sounds
Cover their ears
Dislike public restrooms due to loud toilets/hand dryers
Scream or run away as a response to escape the loud noise.
When children experience under-responsiveness to auditory input, they may:
Seem unaware of their surroundings
Prefer loud music or TV
Not respond when you call their name (this is separate from hearing loss though!)
More often than not, it could be a combination of some items listed above! Individuals can exhibit mixed responses to auditory stimuli, making it important to play “detective” and discover what helps your child (or even you!) process information and navigate your daily activities.
Strategies for Auditory Processing Preferences
There are many ways to support a child and their auditory processing needs or preferences, through modifying the environment or teaching various strategies. As with any of our suggestions, we are not trying to fix your kid (they’re not broken!). Instead, we’re suggesting tools and modifications that can help your kid be more successful, joyful and adaptive.
For a child who is over-responsive, or has auditory defensiveness, try:
Give advanced warnings for loud noises, such as fire drills in school or loud public restrooms
Offer crunchy snacks as a tool to distract the child from a loud background noise
Find a quiet place for the child to go to when they need a break
For a child who is under-responsive, or is seeking auditory input, try:
Toys or activities that provide sound, such as drums, musical toys, rainsticks
Teaching the child to use their own body to get auditory input, such as snapping, clapping, stomping feet
Incorporate auditory input in the background of their day, such as playing music
You can support your child to develop their auditory system through everyday play activities.
But remember, our sensory system is SO complex! No child will be exactly the same in their auditory processing needs.
We need to play detective in order to discover a child’s sensory preferences to support their everyday engagement.