How Our Auditory System Affects Learning – Underlying Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Auditory Processing Disorders

Today, we are faced with many labels or conditions that affect learning. Many have a partial underlying cause in our auditory system including autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, developmental delay, dyslexia, central auditory processing disorder, and auditory processing disorder.

Hypersensitivities to sound may cause an individual to shut out sounds as a defensive mechanism and behave as if he were deaf. On the other hand the same sensitivity may cause another to scream and hold her ears. Learning will be impeded until these sensitivities are normalized.

Another difficulty arises when there is fluid in the ear. Since the Eustachian tubes in young children are more horizontal, fluid can build up and bacteria can form in this warm moist environment. Pressure from the fluid can cause pressure and pain – an ear ache. Repeated ear infections during the first two years of life can greatly affect development of the auditory system. During an infection, the individual hears as if under water and the sounds are not consistent. This in turn can cause receptive auditory problems as well as speech problems. Treating these ear infections without antibiotics or tubes will greatly enhance learning.

Difficulty following oral directions and learning to read using phonics represent just two problems reflected by low auditory sequential processing. When an individual has low auditory sequential processing they cannot remember a series of information long enough to use that information. For example, an individual should be able to look up a phone number or be told a phone number long enough to dial the phone. When parents ask their children to do a short list of chores and within minutes they have forgotten what it was they were to do and they engage in another activity – often play, parents often assume that this is disobedience. It could be disobedience, but it could also be low auditory sequential processing. When a child sounds out a relatively short word, but at the end cannot say the word, it is often due to low auditory sequential processing. Optimally, the solution for these difficulties is not accommodating a deficit, but increasing the auditory sequential processing.

Another major underlying cause for many of these children (and adults) is metabolic – diet / nutrition related. Often these children have what is called “leaky gut syndrome” meaning that nutrients cannot be easily absorbed for use in the body. Many options arise to consider. Elimination diets often remove the offending foods. Other diets work to resolve the issue; some by fixing the leaky gut and others by restoring a balance among nutrients. Families should research the alternatives and find the one that fits their family.

Neurodevelopmentalists look for underlying causes of the missing pieces in development and recommend activities and resources for families, guiding them to solutions.

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The Brain That Changes Itself – by Norman Doidge, M.D. Chapter 7 “Pain – The Dark Side of Plasticity”

In Chapter 7, Doidge introduces us to an M.D. whose specialty is neurology, but who also has a Ph.D. in psychology. Though from India, Ramachandran directs the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California in San Diego. Using simple devices “Rama” has discovered the secret of phantom limbs and chronic pain. Some people suffer pain even after organs have been removed. “Normal pain, ‘acute pain,’ alerts us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain saying, ‘This is where you are hurt – attend to it.’”(p. 180) When the nerves themselves are damaged ‘neuropathic’ pain results with no known cause.

Reading the work of Tim Pons and Edward Taub regarding mind mapping monkeys, Ramanchandran wondered if neuroplasticity would explain phantom pain. “Rama” worked with a 17th year old amputee. First, by blindfolding the young man and then with brain mapping (magnetoencephalography), he was able to determine that the brain map for his phantom arm and face had merged. Some relief was enjoyed by satisfying an itch in the phantom arm by scratching his face. Taub’s team and others have confirmed “Rama’s” conclusion. All of this is so unpredictable because brain maps are dynamic and always changing. “He thinks one reason people get phantom pain is that when a limb is cut off, its map not only shrinks but gets disorganized and stops working properly.” (p. 183)

Other sensations experienced by amputees include the memory of the explosion at the time of injury or pleasant sensations from other body parts or even “frozen” body parts (arms in slings at the time of injury).

Ramachandran then asked himself if these phantom sensations could be “unlearned.” His idea was to fight one illusion with another. By using an open box separated by a mirror an amputee was able to “amputate” the phantom limb. After looking at the mirror image of the phantom limb during 10 minutes a day for 4 weeks, the phantom limb disappeared.

This “body image” extends to other areas. Anorexics imagine they are fat when, in fact, they are near starvation. Others imagine something about their bodies to be wrong. Instead of plastic surgery, they need “’neuroplastic surgery’ to change their body image.” (p. 188) Contrary to conventional wisdom “Rama” believes that pain and body image are created by the brain and projected onto the body. Mothers soothing children and the placebo affect may very well turn down the brain’s pain production. “Ramachandran and Eric Altschuler have shown that the mirror box is effective on other nonphantom problems, such as the paralyzed legs of stroke patients. Mirror therapy differs from Taub’s in that it fools the patient’s brain into thinking he is moving the affected limb, and so it begins to stimulate that limb’s motor program.”(p. 195)

Remarkably, the work of neurologists has opened up more understanding of the WONDER of God’s creation, the brain. We have so much more to learn. Do you agree that pain is the dark side of plasticity?

Contemplating the Uniqueness of Human Development

Looking at the human body, we can see that we certainly are unique among God’s creation. In fact, there are a number of ways in which we are unique from the animal kingdom. We are fearfully and wonderfully made…Psalm 139.

Only man can walk completely upright – we were designed to do just that. God created Adam as a mature adult male, therefore, he walked uprightly. A baby’s early motor development leads to many physical and mental achievements including walking uprightly. Examples of early developmental milestones include turning over by one’s self, lifting up one’s head, cross crawl on tummy, cross creep on hands and knees, “cruising” with the help of furniture, walking with hands above waist for balance, walk with a good cross swinging of both arms below the waist.

Further, we can speak in an abstract, symbolic language. We understand spoken language; we speak language; we read written language and we write language. Being able to read means that we have vision that enables this great feat. Learning to read can seem so easy for some that we do not realize its complexity until we spend some time with those that have great difficulty. As far as the vision is concerned the physical eyes must be intact and properly connected to the visual cortex. These two eyes must be able to track horizontally and vertically as well as work together. Further, one must be dominant and the subdominant must support the other. To understand spoken language the inner ear must be working properly without excessive fluid and to be properly connected to the temporal lobe of the brain. For writing to be possible, one must control the writing instrument sufficiently to form the characters. Of course we can talk about the physical act of writing as well as coming up with the ideas and how to get them on paper in a way that makes sense to others.

At least one other area should be mentioned – that of touch. Only mankind can identify an object by touch alone. Again, this requires communication between our sensory nerves and the brain. One can be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive to tactile sensations. Either way, it disrupts the communication and affects one’s life and learning. One of the main challenges of neurodevelopmentalists is understanding normal development and identifying missing pieces or steps in development. Only then can one teach parents different activities that will stimulate the brain in a way that will encourage development. What a blessing this is for the families.