Auditory processing issues (part 1)

At church a couple of Sundays ago, a visiting preacher was talking about how some people only think about God once a week when they go to church. Then he added something that sounded like ‘If you’re tall’.

I spent the next few minutes searching my brain for reasons why a person’s height would make them more likely to go to church and think about God, and then finally realised there were no reasons and that this made no sense at all.

So I then searched for the nearest alternative and wondered if the preacher could have said ‘if at all’. That would make sense in the overall context of what he was saying. And ‘if you’re tall’ and ‘if at all’ sound pretty similar in a non-rhotic English accent, other than the ‘y’ sound. I have a good ear for detail and the preacher had clearly raised his tongue in his mouth after the word ‘if’. But I know that sometimes people’s tongues are not quite in the right place when they say a word – sometimes they were going to say something else and then switched, for instance, or they aren’t paying attention.

So, after my mind had been through that careful analysis, involving many vivid images, from the image of tall people going to church to the image of the phonology lectures at college in which I learnt about how people’s tongues are not necessarily in the expected place for the word they are saying,  I concluded that the preacher must have said ‘if at all’. But by this time I’d missed the next few minutes of what he’d said – which brought to my mind many vivid images of my primary school days and the frustration of trying to listen to a story and missing parts and then having no idea what the story was about.

‘Auditory processing disorder’ is something that is recognised as often being part of ASDs, but the concept of auditory processing seems to be still incredibly vague. So much so that I’m not even sure if what I experience actually falls into the diagnositic category of ‘auditory processing disorder’. However, I know it is about processing and not about hearing. As a child, I was suspected of having a hearing impairment and was sent to have my hearing checked, with the results that my hearing was fine. I’ve also had a hearing test a couple of years ago, and it’s still fine. However, the fact remains that understanding what people are saying requires a great deal of concentration from me.

So I’m going to try to explain exactly what I experience when I am listening to someone speak, and how this has developed over the years.

One thing I’m aware of is that if I don’t concentrate when a person is talking, all I hear is their accent, which I automatically analyse in great detail in my mind. I find myself subvocalising sounds they make, in order to get a sense of how the sounds they use correspond with the sounds I use. That is, I repeat words they say, but silently, trying to keep my mouth closed (so that people don’t think me weird!). My tongue moves around trying to get a sense of how they say the word. Not for every word they say, but only if it’s a word spoken in a way I find unusual in accent, stress or intonation.

If am alone with the TV on, and similarly not concentrating, I repeat the words I hear on TV out loud, because I have no reason to hide my behaviour when alone. I believe this behaviour would be classified as ‘echolalia’, which is sometimes seen as meaningless repetition, but for me it has the useful purpose of enabling me to process how words can sound in different accents. Feeling the sounds in my mouth helps me to map the sounds onto the sounds I use, and to thus make links between what I hear and what it means.

As a child, I was taught the alphabet phonically. I learnt ah, buh, cuh, duh, eh, fuh, guh, etc. I learnt an exact sound for each letter. I also learnt how the sounds could be changed by the ‘magic e’ – so that ‘bit’ becomes ‘bite’. I learnt how each word was pronounced by listening and repeating. I learnt how different letter combinations produce different sounds. I learnt everything exactly and precisely.

I became an advanced reader for my age – I had a reading age of 12 when I was 6. But reading was easy compared with listening, because written words are consistent. Spelling rules may be inconsistent, but as long as you learn the correct spelling for each word then you will always recognise that word when it is in print. However, the same cannot be said for words that are spoken.

I shall illustrate what I mean. At four years old, I had a plastic doll with a string attached to her. I pulled the string and she said something that I didn’t understand.  I listened again and again and decided she must be saying ‘Excuse me, I’m pridable’. I had never heard the word ‘pridable’ but it made sense as a word, because I knew ‘pride’ was a word, and I observed ‘able’ being added to words in general.

One day I used the word ‘pridable’, and my mother informed me that it wasn’t a word. I told her that my doll said it. I got my doll to prove it and I pulled the string and the doll spoke.

‘She says “Carry me, I’m portable,”‘ said my mother.

‘No she doesn’t,’ I pulled her string again.  ‘There is a “ruh” and a “duh”. It’s “pridable.”‘

‘She has an American accent,’ said my mother. ‘Americans say it like that.’

This was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t even know what an American was, but why on earth would anyone change a ‘t’ to a ‘d’, or add an ‘r’ that wasn’t there? So I simply disbelieved my mother. Besides, I’d never heard the word ‘portable’ before, and it sounded like far too difficult a word for a little doll to say. I didn’t know the word ‘portable’, so how could my doll possibly know it? And how could my doll have an American accent when I’d never heard of America?

The trouble with learning the sounds of your language is that you learn them in a specific accent. As soon as someone with a different accent speaks, many of the sounds change, so you are hearing a different word. This is where ‘top down processing’ helps people – they get an overall sense of what is being said and then fill in the details as they go along. But if you work from ‘bottom up’, focusing first on the details, you easily get lost. And this is where it’s harder for children on the autistic spectrum. Even when someone speaks in the same accent as you, they will not always be consistent in their pronunciation of different sounds.

People often talk about lines from songs that they misheard as a child. Songs lyrics are misheard because children don’t yet have a wide enough understanding of the world, or of language, to understand what is being said, so they approximate to something that makes sense to them. Also, songs don’t have the same rhythm and context as speech – the lyrics follow the rhythm of the music, and lack the environmental context that a conversation has. So understanding spoken language is not just about hearing the details of the sounds – it’s about linking what you hear to world knowledge and context.

While an adult on the autistic spectrum may have an in-depth understanding of the world, the ‘top-down’ linking of everything they hear to this world knowledge simply doesn’t happen automatically, because we process things from ‘bottom up’ – from the details. Similarly, the top-down linking to context doesn’t happen automatically. For instance, in context, obviously the preacher was saying ‘if at all’ rather than ‘if you’re tall’, but my brain latched onto the details of the sounds, and only upon conscious analysis did it occur to me to find a more suitable meaning.

Despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that I found accents such a challenge, I became aware of and fascinated by the existence of accents quite early as a child. By repeating them, I got a sense of how they worked and how their sounds corresponded with my sounds, but it always required an effort, and sometimes I had to repeat something many times before I understood what word it was supposed to be.

At eleven years old I devised a list of all the ways that different people pronounced my name, which is Gail. My Grandad, who had a Northern Irish accent, said is as ‘Geeyul’. My Nana, who had a Yorkshire accent, used a vowel that sounded like ‘air’ (remember that the ‘r’ is unspoken in an English accent, so she didn’t add a consonant). My maths teacher, who was Welsh, said my name in a way that made it only have one syllable, because she didn’t use a syllabic dark ‘l’.

I used to get very confused as to how many syllables my name had, because it was different depending on who said it. Sometimes there was a definite ‘y’ in there (gai-yull) and there were two distinct syllables. Sometimes it seemed to be not quite two syllables, but more than one. And other times, when spoken by Welsh people, it definitely only had one syllable.

So, if my short simple name caused me so much confusion, and required such analysis, you can imagine how confused I got by spoken language as a whole, and how much effort went into analysing the sounds of various accents. As an adult, because of all this analysis, I can map the phoneme structure of many accents in my mind, but even so, I have to concentrate to hear the meaning of what people are saying, and it is easy to lose the thread of what someone is saying if there are many distractions or if it is complicated. When I watch DVDs I always activate the subtitles, because seeing the words written down is an enormous help in processing. Unfortunately, though, real life doesn’t come with subtitles, so it requires immense concentration!



  1. I use captions/subtitles on TV shows and DVDs. They help make sense of accents. They mean I don’t have to turn the volume up to hear over lawnmowers, noisy neighbors, and an occasional whiny dog. And sometimes the words just need spelling out–people’s names or technical terms or place names. Even the non-autistic need the extra help sometimes–or, like you, we get so distracted by what did he say? that we miss the next part of what’s said.

    • Yep, I know a lot of things I write about aren’t a complete opposite to people who are not on the spectrum – I guess it’s a matter of degree and what is actually happening in the mind to cause the behaviour. My dad also always uses subtitles, because he has some hearing impairment. It might never have occurred to me to use subtitles if he hadn’t been using them, and it made me realise how much easier it was to understand what was going on!

  2. Butterfly (my ADHD, Asperger’s daughter) had super-sensitive hearing as a child, but often got words garbled, almost as much as my mom, who was hard of hearing. She still does from time to time, often providing us all with a good laugh at what she thought was said. Other auditory problems for Butterfly involve anxiety in loud environments or confusion even just in a hubbub of gabbling humans. But I must say, it’s me who drifts away from what’s happening because my mind is exploring a detail (like your “if you’re tall”) that I did’t quite get. I’m also the one who comes up with some interesting song lyric interpretations, compared with what is actually being sung. (Butterfly is usually right on, although she sometimes cheats… having the benefit of reading them ahead.) ;o)

    Hmmm… food for thought. Thanks for this. 🙂

  3. Great post!

    I don’t have quite the same trouble with speech recognition that others on the spectrum do (one of my jobs involved transcribing), but I often use subtitles simply because I can’t bear to hear certain people speaking. Especially if they’re people that I know in real life. Or if they’re talking about me. Weird, I know.

  4. Wow- that’s amazing! Thank you SO much for that window into your mind! It’s AWESOME!
    I had honestly never thought too much about ANY of this!
    It has actually explained a lot to me about my son. He often gets confused and overwhelmed by speech and I didn’t realise how much there is to it 🙂

  5. This is very similar to the problem I have, but for very different reasons.
    I often misunderstand what people are saying because of my hearing problem, but I do have the issue of then either tuning out because I don’t understand, or ignoring that they spoke in the first place (pretending I didn’t hear at all).
    I also have trouble with accents, again to my hearing problem. If I don’t realize that someone has an accent, it takes me a bit to understand what people are saying.
    This was definitely interesting to read, and am looking forward to what you’ve got to say in part two!

    • Yep, my dad has that problem with hearing impairment – although he normally just gets cross and tells me I’m mumbling! I guess because he hasn’t always had hearing impairment – it’s come as he’s got older – so to him it really does seem like I’ve started mumbling rather than that he can’t hear me properly!

  6. amazingly articulate way of explaining this! My son uses the subtitles on the tv often…and I never quite understood why. Maybe this explains it! He taught himself to read phoenetically at age 3 (he’s now 6) and can read at a 11 yr old level now. He loves words but, as is typical for an ASD person, can’t understand the spoken language. He described it to me as a “radio volume that goes up and down all the time.” I love this blog. I’ll be back.

  7. As an aspie with auditory processing issues, I can very much associate with this. I have had so many situations like the “if you’re tall” thing, where I got so wrapped up in trying to decipher a particular line that I missed everything after it. Needless to say, I make frequent use of subtitles too!

    And the accent thing… gah, yes. Whenever I encounter a new accent, I basically have to retrain my brain to that person’s speech patterns. Sometimes that’s even true for a specific person with an accent I’m already familiar with.

    Also, somewhat related to the doll… one thing that gives me a lot of trouble is when I have to deal with a really low-quality audio source. There are people whom I can understand perfectly well in person, but who are almost completely unintelligible to me over the phone, for instance.

    • Yep, it’s just like that for me with new accents – I have to train my brain to know how that person pronounces each speech sound. And yes, even specific people with the same accent have some differences.

      I think the doll was a very low-quality audio source, which probably added to the difficulty understanding her. I was able to get the hang of American accents later, when I watched American TV shows.

  8. Pingback: Auditory processing issues (part 2) « Aspects of Aspergers

  9. I have a love hate relationships with my name, Jacqueline. It was the only name I’d go by until about 3rd grade when it was mysteriously shortened to Jackie by my classmates. I always thought Jacqueline was supposed to have 3 syllables, that’s how my American parents said it, but I still have trouble hearing whether they put the ‘wuh’ sound in the middle. I’ve given up and introduce myself as Jackie or the two-syllable “Jaclyn.” I like it better than Jack-eh-lyn, and it’s hard to get my tongue to make the ‘wuh’ sound without getting tongue tied and spitting it out too fast.

  10. I have similar issues with missing out on words because they sound like nonsense at first. The Church incidence sounds similar to what I experience often, particularly on the phone – different words/pieces of sentences sound similar and I have to use my understanding of logic and context and exclude nonsense meaning till I end up with something that makes sense.However, I can see that I do use the top-down method to get it right.

    This is where ‘top down processing’ helps people – they get an overall sense of what is being said and then fill in the details as they go along.

    Yes – In phone conversations I may pick up a few key words per block of sentences (at its worst… it gets better as the conversation progresses) and often manage to guess the meaning so well that the other person never know how hard it is to hear what she* says. I can see how much harder it must be without that sense of ‘gestalt first, then details’.

    *high-pitched voices are hardest

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