What Is Auditory Processing Disorder?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on May 12, 2023
3 min read

People with auditory processing disorder (APD) have a hard time hearing small sound differences in words. Someone says, "Please raise your hand," and you hear something like "Please haze your plan." You tell your child, "Look at the cows over there," and they may hear, "Look at the clown on the chair."

APD, also known as central auditory processing disorder, isn't hearing loss or a learning disorder. It means your brain doesn't "hear" sounds in the usual way. It's not a problem with understanding meaning.

People of all ages can have APD. It often starts in childhood, but some people develop it later. Between 2% and 7% of kids have it, and boys are more likely to have it than girls. The disorder can lead to learning delays, so kids who have it may need a little extra help in school.

APD may be linked to other things that cause similar symptoms. In fact, it may be part of the reason some people have dyslexia. And some experts think children are sometimes diagnosed with ADHD when they actually have APD.

APD can affect the way your child speaks as well as their ability to read, write, and spell. They may drop the ends of words or mix up similar sounds.

It also can be hard for them to talk with other people. They may not be able to process what others are saying and come up with a response quickly.

Your child also may find it hard to:

  • Follow conversations
  • Know where a sound came from
  • Listen to music
  • Remember spoken instructions, particularly if there are multiple steps
  • Understand what people say, especially in a loud place or if more than one person is talking

Doctors don't know exactly what causes APD, but it may be linked to:

  • Illness. APD can happen after chronic ear infections, meningitis, or lead poisoning. Some people who have nervous system diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, also develop APD.
  • Premature birth or low weight.
  • Head injury.
  • Genes (APD may run in families).

Your doctor can use a hearing test to see if your child's issues are caused by hearing loss, but only a hearing specialist, called an audiologist, can diagnose APD.

The audiologist will do a series of advanced listening tests in which your child will listen to different sounds and respond when they hear them. For instance, they might repeat them or push a button. The doctor also may attach painless electrodes to your child's ears and head to measure how their brain reacts to sound.

Children usually aren't tested for APD until age 7 because their responses to the listening test may not be accurate when they're younger.

There's no cure for APD, and the treatment is specific to each person. But it usually focuses on the following areas:

  • Classroom support: Electronic devices, like an FM (frequency modulation) system, can help your child hear the teacher more clearly. And their teachers can suggest ways to help them focus their attention, like sitting toward the front of the class and limiting background noise.
  • Making other skills stronger: Things like memory, problem-solving, and other learning skills can help your child deal with APD.
  • Therapy: Speech therapy can help your child recognize sounds and improve conversational skills. And reading support that focuses on specific areas where your child has trouble can be helpful as well.

You can make a few changes at home, too. Cover hard floors with rugs to reduce echoes, and limit the use of the TV, radio, and other noisy electronics.