auditory processing

auditory processing

I heard you but I have no idea what you said

shelby spees's photo
shelby spees
·Oct 28, 2021·

5 min read

A few years ago I learned that I probably have auditory processing issues.

They may have actually been there since childhood. As an only child in a quiet household, any struggles I did have went unnoticed.

As I got older I’d subconsciously accommodate for it: watching shows with headphones and/or subtitles, choosing quiet places to hang out with friends, chatting over text. In adulthood, however, I’ve been finding myself in more situations where I need to listen carefully to what someone is saying over moderate background noise I can’t control.

am I going deaf?

It became really noticable in 2019 after my partner and I started dating. Trying to have a conversation with him while out walking the dog was impossible if there happened to be any amount of car traffic. Hanging out at home, I’d have to turn off my noisy little wall A/C unit every time we wanted to talk for more than a few minutes. It just happened that his voice was in exactly the range that would get drowned out by that background noise.

Around the same time, I starting having more and more issues hearing at work. It was an open office—a long corridor with concrete floors, bare walls, and high ceilings. Noise from the kitchen (at the far end of the corridor) would somehow jettison directly to my ears, which meant I got startled every time a coworker put a dish in the dishwasher or ran the Keurig. But when my teammate sitting next to me was explaining something? I couldn’t understand a word he said. His voice was similarly in that range where it was impossible to hear him over background noise.

With frequent hearing issues cropping up both at work and in my personal life, I became so worried that I decided to get my hearing checked. Apparently I have excellent hearing 🤷. It’s especially good for higher ranges (which makes sense, since I’m a violinist and a soprano). It was a relief to know I didn’t have hearing loss, but I was still struggling.

auditory processing disorder?

Thankfully, around that time there were several people I followed on Twitter who shared their experiences with auditory processing disorders. I googled around and what do you know? This sounds just like me.

While it’s common for people who study linguistics to go into speech language pathology, I hadn’t been exposed to those topics. I only learned about auditory processing from the internet. Apparently, these disorders are a common comorbity with ADHD.

I’m looking into getting assessed and seeing if it’s something that can be addressed with training or therapy. For now, I’d like to share in more detail what I struggle with.

As mentioned earlier, trying to hear someone talk over droning/humming background noise like traffic, lawnmowers, dishwashers, washing machines, fans or A/C units, etc. In fact, the presence of any background noise like this subtly steals my focus and drains my energy. I know this because of how frequently I find myself clenching my teeth in response, and how much I relax when the noise stops.

Another thing I struggle with is understanding dialog when watching movies at home, although that’s pretty common with the way cinematic audio is optimized for viewing in theaters:

Original sound mixes for movies are designed to be heard in a movie theater rather than a home setting. Since movie theater acoustics are different, the balance between dialogue, music, and sound effects doesn’t always translate well for home viewing.

I was able to hear okay with just a soundbar at my old apartment, but this new place is rough.

my sound bar was way more effective at that distance too

— shelby spees, scaredy-cat 🙀😭 (@shelbyspees) October 25, 2021

My issues with echo really stood out when I was moving because of how hard I needed to strain to understand people in the empty, echoey apartment. It’s hard to tell whether it’s just a heightened awareness or if my auditory processing is actually getting worse, but I find any amount of echo or reverberation in a room to be distracting now.

Thankfully, the echo became noticably reduced in most of the apartment after we moved our furniture in. Still, the layout in our living room means we’re fighting an uphill battle. Combining the moderate echo in here with quiet, mumbly movie dialogue means I can’t understand shit. Bonus: my partner experiences sensory issues as well, some of which unfortunately conflict with mine—he finds subtitles genuinely distracting. Depending on how garbled the audio is (and the time of day), we’ll negotiate turning up the volume vs. turning on captions.

We had wanted to wait on investing in “home theater” upgrades until the holidays but straining to hear dialogue all the time is exhausting for me. So I’m going ahead with getting surround sound speakers. Fingers crossed that they make a difference 🤞🏼.

So yeah, please bear with me if I ask you to repeat yourself. Don’t be surprised if I give an unsatisfying answer to your question during a meeting, but then a few minutes after the meeting ends I’m sending you paragraphs over Slack. Please please please make sure your videos are captioned and any audio-only content is published with transcripts. Finally, you can help by pointing out people’s audio quality issues and taking steps to make your own audio suck less. Sound issues that are mildly annoying for you can be debilitating for people like me.

 
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