Auditory processing disorder (APD) is a hearing or listening problem caused by the brain not processing sounds in the normal way.

It can affect your ability to:

  • pinpoint where a sound is coming from
  • tell which sound comes before another
  • distinguish similar sounds from one another – such as "seventy" and "seventeen"
  • understand speech – particularly if there's background noise, more than one person speaking, the person is speaking quickly, or the sound quality is poor
  • remember instructions you've been told
  • enjoy music

Children with the problem may also have difficulty responding to sounds, understanding things they're told, concentrating, and expressing themselves with speech. Their reading and spelling may also be affected.

Many people find the condition becomes less of an issue over time as they develop the skills to deal with it. Children may need extra help and support at school, but they can be just as successful as their classmates.

Who is affected?

Auditory processing disorder affects people of all ages. Many cases start in childhood, although it sometimes can develop in adults.

Children with auditory processing disorder may have noticeable problems from a very young age, although sometimes the symptoms might not be obvious or only become apparent later on when they start school, college, university or a new job.

It's not clear exactly how many people have auditory processing disorder, but it's thought up to 1 in every 20 children may have it to some degree.

What causes auditory processing disorder?

Exactly what causes auditory processing disorder isn't fully understood. Sometimes a possible underlying factor is identified, but not always.

In children, the condition may occur after a persistent hearing problem at a young age, such as glue ear, which has since passed but has had a permanent effect on how the brain processes sound. It may also be caused by a genetic defect, as some cases seem to run in families.

In adults and children, the condition may be associated with damage to the brain from a head injurystrokebrain tumour or meningitis.

Some cases in adults have also been linked to age-related changes in the ability of the brain to process sounds and progressive conditions affecting the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis.

How your GP can help

You should visit your GP if you think you or your child may have a hearing problem such as auditory processing disorder. They may refer you to an audiologist (hearing specialist) for some tests.

The tests used may include:

  • hearing tests – you or your child will be asked to listen to a variety of sounds and respond to them
  • questionnaires – you or your child may be asked questions such as, "If a friend or family member shouts your name, do you know who is calling without looking to see?" 
  • electrode tests – an earbud or headphones are placed in your ear and electrodes are placed on your head to measure your brain's response to sound
  • speech and language assessments and cognitive (thinking) assessments

Once auditory processing disorder is diagnosed, you'll be advised about ways you can adapt to the problem.

How auditory processing disorder is managed

There's currently no cure for auditory processing disorder, but there are a number of strategies that can help you cope with the condition. Some of these are outlined below.

Auditory training

You may be advised to try special activities to help train your brain to analyse sound better, known as auditory training. This can be done either on your own, with a professional, or with the help of a computer programme or CD.

It can involve a range of tasks, such as identifying sounds and guessing where they're coming from or trying to focus on specific sounds when there's some slight background noise. The tasks can be adapted for people of different ages, with children often learning through games or from reading with their parents.

Changes at home or school

Be aware of room acoustics and how they affect you. Rooms with hard surfaces will cause echoes, so rooms with carpets and soft furnishings are best. Switch off any radios or televisions and move away from any noisy devices such as fans.

If your child has problems hearing, talk to their school about changes that may help them, such as sitting near the teacher, using visual aids and reducing background noise.

Your child may also benefit from wearing a radio receiver or having a speaker on their desk at school, which is connected wirelessly to a small microphone worn by their teacher. Alternatively, a speaker system in the class that's connected to the teacher's microphone may help your child hear their teacher over any background noise.

Help from others

It may be useful to tell other people about your hearing problems and let them know what they can do to help you hear more clearly.

Ask them to:

  • make sure they get your attention and face you before they talk
  • speak clearly and a little more slowly than normal
  • emphasise their speech to highlight the key points of the message
  • repeat or rephrase the message if necessary  

Further information

For more information on what you can do to help yourself and how others can help you, you might find the following leaflets helpful:

Page last reviewed: 20/05/2015

Next review due: 20/05/2017