A grandfather was peering through the window of the newborn nursery at the hospital. His daughter had given birth the day before. Looking at little Ian, the grandfather saw his own round nose. There was no mistaking that this child was family.
The maternity ward was too warm for his liking. He would keep his visit short and get some fresh air. He noticed a rhythmic clicking noise. Where was it coming from? Ah-ha! There was a fan running in the newborn nursery. It was making a click on every rotation.
The grandfather would not stand for this. He knocked on the window to the nursery. One busy nurse frowned at him. He persisted and she came out to scold him.
Nurse: Stop knocking. We have babies who are sleeping!
Grandfather: Your wretched fan is harming their brains. Turn it off immediately!
That approach didn’t work. The nurse gave him a chair and some apple juice and went back to her work, leaving the fan on.
The grandfather was a neuroscientist who had done extensive research on auditory processing. He waited until he was outside and then turned on his mobile to call his lawyer. The next day he was back with a letter demanding that the hospital remove the fan from the newborn nursery.
Why was this neuroscientist so sure that white noise would damage the babies’ brains? What did this expert in auditory processing know?
Auditory processing is what you do when you are listening and figuring out the meaning of the sound.
For example, if you were crossing the street and heard squealing brakes, your brain would immediately alert you to danger. If you were scanning the radio for a good station, you would be able to tell the difference between country music and classical music in less than two seconds.
No, babies are not born with auditory processing difficulties. Newborns have brains that are waiting for sensory input. Neuroscience research has shown that processing abilities develop after birth as neurons link up to create pathways in the brain.
Each incoming signal is important to a newborn’s brain. During the first year of life, the brain is very busy getting organized. The baby must analyze the sensory input and create a category for it. This crucial brain development prepares the baby for life.
The newborn babies in the nursery were processing the whoosh and click of the fan and trying to attach meaning to it.
Have you ever entered a room and smelled potpourri or bleach? Your brain notices the smell, analyzes it and then quickly stops paying attention to it. Your brain already has categories for potpourri and bleach. As soon as your brain has put the aroma into a category, you can shift your attention to something else. An organized brain deals with incoming sensory information as efficiently as possible. Even though the sensory information keeps coming at you, your brain can decide to turn off the processing. In essence, your brain stops thinking about the input. Your brain is highly tuned in to new sensory input and wonderfully capable of ignoring old sensory input.
White noise is sound that covers a wide frequency range. It has a fuzzy quality with no specific pitch.
Some examples of white noise are:
Adults notice white noise when they enter a new environment. Very quickly, the brain decides not to analyze the incoming noise. The brain decides to stop paying attention to the noise.
Let’s get back to the grandfather who brought a letter from his lawyer to the hospital. He wanted the hospital to remove the fan from the newborn nursery because he knew that white noise could teach those little brains to stop paying attention in noisy situations. He was aware of the impact of auditory processing difficulties on speech, language and learning. His expertise compelled him to protect the babies in the nursery from the consequences of being exposed to white noise so early in their development.
Preschoolers with auditory processing difficulties usually have delayed language and poor speech. It can be hard for them to hear the difference between speech sounds, resulting in speech problems. Comprehension can be affected, because the person is doing a lot of guessing. Words like Sue, shoe, zoo, and chew might all sound the same to the child.
Primary students with auditory processing difficulties often lag behind their peers in reading acquisition and spelling. They are bright, with good visual reasoning and problem solving. This type of child tends to excel at visual activities, such as puzzles, lego and Mindcraft.
It is common for a concerned teacher to notice the poor listening skills and refer the child for a hearing test. Children with auditory processing difficulties can appear non-compliant because they don’t follow verbal instructions well. They might have memory problems because they are doing so much guessing. They might have expressive language problems.
Adult: I told you not to take that outside. Why is it all wet?
Child: Um. I don’t know.
Auditory processing difficulties make it difficult to pay attention in noisy situations, like a classroom or gym. In addition, processing of speech tends to be slower than normal. Children who can’t keep up might tune out when someone is talking. The child might not hear all the sounds in a word, so sore and store might sound the same. It can be impossible to understand people with foreign accents. Children with auditory processing difficulties often ask for repetition.
Adult: We will stop at the store to get some cream for your sore.
Child: Huh? What did you say?
Auditory Processing Difficulties in Autism
Parents of children with auditory processing difficulties often wonder if their child has autism. It is true that auditory processing difficulties are very common in autism. The key to a differential diagnosis is that autism usually involves lots of sensory processing issues, not just auditory processing problems.
Auditory Processing Disorder
In most cases, the student’s hearing has been tested several times and the results show that hearing acuity is normal. A hearing acuity test is measuring a very basic brain function. It tells you that the sensory system is detecting auditory input. It does not tell you if the brain can process that auditory input quickly and attach meaning to it.
While it is common to get a diagnosis of LD, dyslexia, autism or ADD/ADHD, it is rare to get a diagnosis of an auditory processing disorder (APD) for a child. There are several reasons that APD is an elusive diagnosis:
At Neuroplan, we provide information and online treatment for auditory processing difficulties for children and teens within the context of recognized diagnoses such as learning disabilities, autism, dyslexia and ADD / ADHD.
It not possible to inherit auditory processing difficulties, because processing abilities develop as neurons connect after birth. It is likely that some children inherit a propensity toward having problems and that environmental exposure makes a crucial difference in the outcome.
The elderly neuroscientist who fought to have the fan removed knew about genetic propensity. He was aware that it might not be his grandson who suffered the most. He knew that some of the infants in that nursery could be highly vulnerable to auditory processing problems later in life.
A diagnosis of auditory processing disorder (APD) is less controversial in adults. It is possible to acquire an auditory processing disorder subsequent to a hearing loss, a brain tumour or another type of acquired brain injury. A person with no previous learning or attention difficulties can suddenly have problems with listening when there is too much background noise.
Sound engineers have designed many solutions to reduce background noise in public settings. Theatres, churches and other large arena’s are equipped with loudspeaker systems. Directional microphones are designed to pick up a clear signal without much environmental noise.
There are also individual solutions. Hearing aids have special circuitry to help people.
FM systems have a microphone for the teacher or presenter. This allows a speaker’s voice to be transmitted directly to listeners who are using receivers that are set to a given radio frequency. Alternatively, the speaker's voice can be broadcast to the whole room by speakers. This lets listeners hear the speaker’s voice without any background noise.
Unfortunately, very few classrooms are equipped with these solutions.
The struggles of people with auditory processing difficulties were well understood by the elderly neuroscientist. Furthermore, his research underlined the connection between sensory exposure and brain mapping. His outrage is relevant to the increase in popularity of white noise machines used by new parents.
Think about it. White noise machines could be harming babies. Shouldn't new parents be warned about the possible consequences?
There are many online blogs that recommend using white noise to help babies sleep. They go so far as to say that it should be used all night long and at every nap until the baby is 12 months of age.
Companies that sell white noise machines are capitalizing on the difficulties parents face in getting babies to sleep. Here are some examples of the arguments that are used to convince parents to use white noise:
These companies evoke powerful emotions in new parents by claiming that the babies themselves actually benefit from white noise. The claims are evident on the packaging, on sales sites and on blogs. For example:
While the argument regarding SIDS is emotionally compelling, parents should realize that it is a sales tactic, not science. There is no proof that white noise machines prevent SIDS.
For advice on how to prevent SIDS, refer to advice from reputable sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. There is also helpful information on important issues like baby sleep safety at smartparentadvice.com.
Are parents making a terrible mistake by using white noise to teach their baby’s brain to stop paying attention in noisy situations? This behavior is a diagnostic feature of learning disabilities, dyslexia, autism and attention deficit disorder. Will there be lifelong consequences for babies who have spent their first year of life being exposed to white noise?
Using white noise for babies might result in auditory processing difficulties later in life. This could lead to problems with speech, language and learning. Do you agree? What do you think?
Online speech language therapy and literacy apps. Available across Canada. Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, ADD/ADHD, Autism, Auditory Processing, Acquired Brain Injury, Stuttering, English Comprehension and Grammar.