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Auditory Perceptual Problems: My Story

Dale Brown

The experience of finding out about my auditory perceptual problems, after knowing about the rest of my learning disabilities, is all too typical.

I am writing this article with the hope that readers will understand that each of us is different. What works for one does not work for all. Yet, sharing is helpful, and I hope this material starts someone thinking. I am emphasizing auditory perception here because these difficulties are not very often discussed. The experience of finding out about my auditory perceptual problems, after knowing about the rest of my learning disabilities, is all too typical. This is my story:

I sat across from the counselor. “Tina told me that I might have auditory perceptual problems,” I told her. “She said that you’d give me a test.”

The counselor nodded. She put a large pad with four pictures in front of me and explained that she would play a tape that would say words. I was to point to the picture of the word. The pictures looked childish, and it seemed a bit embarrassing. She turned on the tape recorder. The test seemed easy as I pointed to picture after picture. She took it away and worked on scoring it, while I remembered what brought me there.

I had spent three months working in a factory. The job was tough for me, and I left with a feeling of failure. Once, my supervisor scolded me because she said, “Strip eight wires”, but I had heard eighty. I then realized that something was wrong and began to keep track of my mistakes. To my surprise, most of them involved hearing. So I visited a counselor named Tina. She listened to my story and asked me some questions. I answered all of them, “Yes.” She stated that I might have auditory sequencing problems, which meant hearing sounds out of order. She sent me to another counselor named Mary who would test me.

Mary’s voice pulled me away from my memories.

“Dale,” she said. “I’ve been through your scores twice, and frankly, you’ve done poorly. You have scored in the lowest ten percentile.”

I felt strange; happy, upset, and relieved all at once.

“Well, let’s make sure that I was pointing to the right pictures,” I said. (I also had visual perceptual problems.) It turned out that at one point, I had heard the word “fair” correctly, but pointed to a fair woman, rather than to a picture of a “fair” which I had interpreted as a tent. Still, that didn’t affect my score.

“Well, how do you feel about it?” asked the counselor.

“At the moment, I’m not feeling anything,” I replied.

“Well, if you ever want to talk about it, you can make an appointment.”

“OK, I’m sorry I’m not into talking right now. I guess I have a lot to think about it, so that’s what I would like to do…think.”

I left the office, walked out the door and down the hall. I was too involved in my own thoughts to look around. Memories tumbled through my mind…fighting with my Mom, because I was waiting for her at the wrong time…organizing a bus trip and telling the students to return at 4:30 when the bus driver told me he’d be back at 5:30…asking the teacher a question and hearing him say, “Dale, I just covered that.”…watching a movie and not being able to follow the plot.

Intellectually, I was satisfied with the diagnosis, but emotionally, it was a lot to absorb. I knew I saw incorrectly, was extremely clumsy, lacked a sense of direction, and had to consciously control my restlessness. But I thought my hearing was safe.

I was depressed, full of self-pity, and angry for weeks. “I can’t trust any of my senses,” I kept thinking. No wonder I always stared. My “staring” was an effort read people’s lips as they spoke. When in a group, I always felt separate and alien, straining to keep up. My image of myself was a person who was insensitive, untactful, and rude. Now it was clear that if my hearing wasn’t right, my responses would not be right either.

For the first few months after the diagnosis, I noticed many of my hearing errors. For example, a friend asked me to, “Go to the wall and turn on the light.” When I did it, she laughed and said, “Dale, I told you to go to the hall and turn to the right.”

I listened to various background noises and sorted them out from each other. Could I hear the silverware rattling in the cafeteria, the chairs scraping the floor, the clanking conveyer belt that took our trays to the dishwashing room, the clattering keys of the cash register, the soft bell when its drawers opened? My hearing slowly improved.

I reevaluated my “coping skills” which were clearly inefficient, since they were developed when I thought my hearing was my strongest sense. I thought about and tested better ones. Here are some that worked for me:

  • Taking less notes in class since writing interfered with listening. Instead, I discussed the material with other students and my teacher. When my auditory perception improved, I listened for important facts and wrote them down.
  • Asking many people to teach me something so that no one person would get impatient with me. Unfortunately, in a small college, people quickly learn secrets about one another. That embarrassment seemed preferable to demanding several hours of one person’s time.
  • Asking instructors to show me what to do and then watch me do it.
  • Writing down important facts. Repeating what I had to remember.
  • Holding conversations with one person at a time, rather than having discussions in groups.
  • Keeping background noise down. When there was noise in the hallway, I walked out of my seat and closed the classroom door. I didn’t study in my noisy dormitory room. Instead, I carried my books to empty classrooms and in the library.

As my perception strengthened, I developed subtle ways of repeating back, using my own words, adding a few of my thoughts. My favorite phrases were, “So what you are saying is…” and “So, you are telling me that…”, and “Well, you seem to think…”

For years, after learning about my auditory perception, I coped with it and tried to remediate the disability. Some activities that improved my auditory perception were:

  • Studying books on how to help children with learning disabilities and adapting these techniques to myself.
  • Listening to tapes and repeating what I heard.
  • Listening to my footsteps as my shoes hit the hard floor to associate the movement of my body with the sound.
  • Dancing in front of a mirror.
  • Listening to a conversation while chopping carrots.
  • Learning to type out what someone told me on the telephone.
  • Watching concerts and trying to pick out the sounds of different instruments.
  • Listening to a speech and trying to tell a friend about it.
  • Doggedly tracking down the reason for every mistake I made and figuring out what I heard wrong.

It became clear that my self-remediation plan was successful when I became a reporter for “Disabled USA” magazine for the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. I realized, after two years of doing it, that I had not misquoted anyone. I even developed the ability to hear to some of the “hidden messages” from people’s tones of voices well enough to make political judgments.

For my first few years on the job, I wrote down instructions to be sure they were correct. Unfortunately, taking notes during conversations to remember what was said added formality to interactions. It intimidated some people. During business lunches and receptions, where much important information is learned, taking notes is not “socially appropriate.” I worked hard to become independent of my notes.

I never became completely independent of my notes, as it is my belief that the strongest memory is weaker than the weakest pen. But, I recently was interviewing someone and took out paper and a pen.

She said, “I hope you aren’t quoting me.”

I saw she was uncomfortable, put away my notebook and smiled. I continued the interview and wrote down the facts when I returned to my office.

I hope this small story teaches the reader something about one of our disabilities that is rarely discussed- auditory perceptual problems.

Dale Brown is currently the senior manager here at LD OnLine. She is author of five books on disabilities and employment including “Job Hunting Tips for the So-Called Handicapped,” which she co-authored with Richard Bolles. She has two other stories here in First Person A Letter to My Grandmother and Learning to Dance. This story was adapted from an article originally published in “Perceptions” in 1983.

© Dale Susan Brown

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