I remember at four years old, when I’d just started school, my mother was asking me about what I did at school. As my mind stores every detail, I couldn’t begin to answer such a question, as there were far too many things to describe, so I said crossly ‘I don’t know’. She said ‘You must know – have you forgotten already?’ and I said no, and tried to explain that there were too many things. So she tried to narrow it down by asking me what I do first. I said it’s different every day, so she then asked me ‘What does Monday start with?’
Here was finally a specific question that made sense to me! ‘A “muh”!’ I declared.
‘Ah, you know your letters,’ said my mother, sounding surprised and pleased. ‘What does Tuesday begin with?’
‘A “cuh”!’ I said.
My mother frowned. ‘Listen to me,’ she said. ‘Tuesday.’ She said it very slowly.
‘A “cuh”,’ I said, and then added for emphasis: ‘Not a kicking “kuh” though.’
‘If it began with a “cuh” it would be “Cuesday”. Do you say “Cuesday”?’ asked my mother.
I remember thinking she must be incredibly stupid! ‘No, because it’s “cuh” “huh”, which makes “chuh”.’
There was a silence, and then my mother said ‘Oooooh! How funny! Yes, it does sound like “chuh”, but it’s not really.’ She went on to explain, but I stopped listening because I thought she was talking nonsense. The way she said it (and the way many Brits say it) was ‘Choose-day’. I also said ‘Choose-day’ until I saw it written down and realised it was a ‘t’ and a ‘y’ together, so I altered my pronunciation accordingly. Altering my pronunciation according to spelling is probably one reason I developed an accent that was ‘posher’ than my family or my peers!
I wrote a while ago about auditory processing difficulties in Asperger Syndrome (here is the entry) and the specific difficulties of understanding accents, but, as the above example illustrates, there are in fact many other aspects of spoken language that make words vary. The same word, or sound, will be pronounced differently in different contexts, dependent on all kinds of different things. Tiredness, enthusiasm, formality, etc., can all alter the way a person pronounced a certain word – as can emphasis. For instance the vowel sound in the word ‘to’ is different in these two sentences:
- ‘I’m going to go swimming’
- ‘The train is going to London, not from London’
(Say them aloud, and you’ll see.)
People alter words and sounds for speed and ease of speech. There is a process called ‘assimilation’, by which a person will change a speech sound according to which sound is following it – so handbag is often pronounced hambag, as the m is in the same place in the mouth as the b is. And Roman Catholic is often pronounced Romang Catholic, because the tongue position in making the ng sound is in the same place in the mouth as the c sound.
Most people don’t even notice such things. The ‘normal’ brain filters out the unnecessary and attends to the relevant, whereas the autistic brain lacks this filter and attends to everything, having to use conscious intellect to decide what is important.
Hence, the majority of people have not even noticed or cared about something that bothered me tremendously as a child – the fact that the a sound in bat is different from the a sound in bad. This is something that is taught in university phonetics classes and people learn to become aware of it if they are studying about it – but they don’t need to be aware of it if they are not studying it, because it isn’t necessary for communication.
However, for myself, as a small child trying to find the patterns to language, I noticed it and became most confused and distressed that I’d been told the same sound was in ‘bat’ and ‘bad’, when I could hear they were different and feel they were different when I said them. Furthermore, my mother wouldn’t believe me when at six years old I told her vehemently that they were two different sounds, so my sense of reality got confused, and I wondered if I was pronouncing them wrong.
I clearly remember the day when this confusion was cleared up. I was 22, studying in Canada and working at the university photocopy shop. One day I was photocopying a customer’s lecture notes on phonetics, and as I placed the papers down on the photocopier, I saw a paragraph about the ‘a’ in ‘bat’ and ‘bad’ being different. It explained that although both words contain an ‘a’ sound, the ‘a’ is actually longer in the word ‘bad’, but that this isn’t a difference that is acknowledged as significant, in the way that the difference between the ‘i’ in ‘bid’ and the ‘ee’ in ‘bead’ is.
I rushed to show a colleague, who was photocopying something on the colour copier, telling her with great excitement how interesting this was. She didn’t share my interest. My customer said to me when I handed her the photocopy ‘Were you actually reading those boring notes?’ ‘Yes, they’re really interesting!’ I said with enthusiasm, to which she replied ‘You’re mad!’ To her they were boring lecture notes, but to me they validated something I’d noticed as a child but that no one had ever seemed to notice. They spelt out something that I would have liked spelt out when I was five.
So, being hyperaware (if that is a word) of all the minute differences in the same speech sound can actually be just as much of a problem as being unaware of differences between different speech sounds.
I study speech and language therapy at the moment, and there is a lot of emphasis on helping children who have the opposite problem of not being able to distinguish between different speech sounds. For instance, if a child isn’t aware of a difference between the sounds c and g, he also won’t be able pronounce the two as separate sounds. So his speech will be difficult to understand, because, for instance, he will say the two different words girl and curl in the same way, so you won’t know which word he is using.
I have not observed a similar emphasis on the opposite problem of hyperawareness of all the variations one speech sound can take – perhaps because it doesn’t result in speech problems, so is less obvious. But hyper-awareness of all the variations of sounds leads to difficulty generalising. People on the autistic spectrum have difficulty with generalisation, and it is generalisation that enables a person to know, for instance, that the p in pit is the same phoneme (speech sound) as the p in spit, despite the fact that the former lacks the puff of air that the latter has, and thus sounds more like a b. It is similar generalisation and categorisation abilities that enables a person to know that the b in bit is not the same phoneme as the p in spit, even though it sounds the same.
It is possible to improve at auditory processing, but for someone on the autistic spectrum, who has difficulties generalising, the difficultlies generalising do not go away. They are an intrinsic part of how the autistic brain works. So improving auditory processing is about hearing the same words and sounds used in many contexts and by many speakers, so the brain builds up a sort of collection of the many different ways that a word or sound can be pronounced. There will always be new ways in future, so there will always be potential future confusion, but the more ways are collected, the easier auditory processing becomes.
For myself, where I noticed the biggest difficulties was in learning foreign languages at school. I learnt French and German, and to my teachers’ bemusement, I could read and write with ease to a high level, easily grasping the grammar and learning the vocabulary, but could barely understand the spoken language at all. As an adult I have experimented a little with learning new foreign languages in different ways, to try to see exactly how this auditory processing difficulty works and how it can be helped. I have learnt a few things from this, and will write one more entry on auditory processing where I talk about what I’ve learnt and try to formulate some helpful tips for helping children on the autistic spectrum with auditory processing. However, it’s important to bear in mind that auditory processing disorder is never cured – it’s a matter of finding compensatory strategies.