Auditory Processing and Autism

Children with autism tend to have strong visual processing skills, which helps them learn through sight; this means teachers tend to rely on visual methods. While it is always helpful to utilize a child’s strengths in learning, it is also beneficial to target and improve their weaker skills. For kids on the ASD spectrum, this can help move mild-to-moderate autism forward with communication skills and academic performance.

A commonly overlooked skill is auditory processing- the way the brain distinguishes, analyzes and manipulates sounds. This skill gives us the ability to read fluently and understand what we read; it also helps us attend to and comprehend directions and information. By improving auditory processing skills in autistic children, you can strengthen language skills and also reduce auditory hypersensitivity.

Kids with autism tend to exhibit weaknesses with auditory attention and memory. Sound is fleeting, which means that some kids may not have enough time to interpret and retain the information. This weakness can hinder language learning. As you might guess, language is the primary way we understand and communicate thoughts. Poor language skills hinder a child’s ability to listen in the classroom, read, and participate in group settings.

What You Can Do

 Parents and teachers have told me that, after working on auditory skills, they noticed improvements in their children’s ability to follow directions, to pay attention during class, comprehend what they read, and be aware of their environment. Educators and clinicians often immediately try accommodations: adjusting the environment, assigning a specific place for the child to sit, reducing noise, or altering the task so the child can work more on his own.

However, I prefer trying to first boost the child’s sound awareness. If we start by trying to go around the problem, instead of going through it, it can take longer to achieve the result you’re looking for. Here are few tips for targeting and strengthening auditory processing:

  • You can boost sound awareness by working to improve the child’s ability to hear song rhythms or to clap to a metronome.
  • One way to improve phonemic awareness by reading something and asking the child to tap the table when he hears a particular sound, for instance the “J” in, “Jack and Jill went up the hill.” Also, starting with real words can be a confidence booster before moving on to nonsense words that will be further challenge auditory skills.
  • One great exercise to try is asking your child, “What position is the vowel in?” In the nonsense word “ilt,” the vowel is in the first position; in “dra,” it’s in the third.
  • You can also use an FM system to jump-start your rapid listening. Since discrimination of sounds can be a challenge for children with autism, try using holding a microphone at your mouth. This ensures that the sound is carried straight to your child’s ear and provides clearer input with less distortion.

These are a few simple techniques to help your child focus on and manipulate sounds. Since children on the autism spectrum tend to have difficulty with the rhythm of their speech and to speak in a monotone voice.

Once these games become easier for your child, move on to practice listening to directions. You might even try adding a delay, so that he has to wait a few seconds before responding or performing the task; this reinforces both auditory sequencing and memory skills. You can use these techniques either with a speech language pathologist or on your own; targeting these skills can offer some encouraging improvements for your child.

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Math Anxiety and What to Do About It

I recently received quite a few e-mails when the Nov 8, 2012 Times article "High Anxiety: How Worrying About Math Hurts Your Brain" by Olivia Waxman about the study published by Ian M Lyons and Sian Beilock.

You can go to this web site to read the article in its entirety.

In summary, the study reported that the mere anticipation of doing a math problem, for those with math anxiety, triggered increased activity in the dorso-posterior insula an anatomical area- the same are that shows increased activity when experiencing either physical pain or social rejection. When the math problem was solved, the pain center did not show increased activity.

Although many people report math anxiety, what occurs to me is that many individuals have cognitive weaknesses that impede their ability to understand and execute math problems. The result is that they accept these limitations as unchangeable and then begin to feel anxious.   It is important to learn why math is so challenging.  Actually, there are a number of foundational skills that can help support math: attention for detail, memory, logic & reasoning, visual processing, processing speed and number fluency.  As these foundation skills improve, so can math abilities.

Attention is the ability to stay focused over time. This skill is important for math require you to be able to remain focused over time and attend to detail, especially as problems get more complex. You can tell if your child has trouble paying attention if he understands the concept of the problem but then adds instead of multiplies, or subtracts instead of adds.

Try this: A simple deck of playing cards can be magic for reinforcing cognitive skills.  To build attention, have your child raise his/her hand or hit a bell whenever s/he sees the targeted number or suite of card as you flip through a deck of playing or Uno ™ cards.  To further challenge your child, s/he must say the targeted card or quickly add, subtract or multiply a number to the card.  To build sustained attention, add another deck of cards.

Memory is the ability to store and retrieve information. Memory is important to recall number facts and sequence. What is your child’s ability to hold on to the first steps of a problem or the initial calculation? If she cannot hold this information long enough to move on to the next step of the problem, progression will be difficult. She may need to retrieve previously learned information from long-term memory to execute the problems at hand.

Try this: Show your child a numbered card. Next, turn it over, hiding the number, and then have your child say the card number.  Present another card in the same way. Then, have your child remember and then add the two numbers.  Repeat this using two new cards at a time. As he gets better, have him work on adding in sequence. To do this, repeat the previous pattern,but then have him recall last number shown (not the sum). Next, show & hide another card and ask him to add this new number to the previous.  Continue, but remember: don’t add the sum number, only the numbers presented visually.

Visual processing is the ability to see and manipulate visual stimuli. It is helpful to see shape, size, and relationships. We use this skill to see groups, understand angles, and other activities in math.

Try this: Quick matching of similar shapes or numbers can be helpful.  You can tweak this activity by sorting by size with various sizes presented and the same for the orientation of the shape – a triangle upside down or at an angle matching a triangle presented in the vertical position.

Logic and reasoning allows us to see patterns and trends; it allows us to order events. One needs logic and reasoning to understand bigger concepts.  When we decide what is needed and how to set up a story problem, we are using logic and reasoning.

Try this: Practice copying patterns with young children using items like beads or blocks.  You can even have fun and have them create a pattern for a crown, flowerpot border or placemat for dinner.  For older children, start a pattern and see if they can finish the pattern.  This can be easily done with building blocks and Leggo’s ™.

Processing speed is how efficiently and quickly we can process information. It is very important to be able to do the basics quickly and move to second or third steps.

Try this: Time your child working his/her way through various paper and pencil mazes.  Your child will love the competition when you make it a race between multiple participants!

Number fluency is recognition of written numbers. It is a coding process normally developed by age three or four. If we are delayed with recognition of numbers, it slows us down with calculation.

Try this: Get two decks of cards and deal out one deck, an equal number of cards for each player.  Use the second deck to flip over the target cards; players must match the number on the card being pulled from the second deck.  The first person to get rid of all their cards by matching the numbers is the winner.  To push number fluency that is more than visual recognition, have participants say the number before placing the card on the target card.

Sometimes, working with a psychologist on math anxiety may be helpful.  When we have had a negative experience with something in the past, like difficulty with math, we often continue to anticipate a negative experience. What’s more, if our brain becomes overwhelmed with anxiety, it doesn’t process as well.  However, if you suspect an underlying weakness is related to your child’s math skills, and not only anxiety, learning your child's skill areas and targeting work in those areas might just do the trick, making stress over math a thing of the past.

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