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Auditory Processing Difficulties in the Workplace

Learn more about auditory processing disorder

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


Dalene is an administrative assistant who documents the meetings of a local government and finds it problematic to accurately take notes. Ben is a sales manager who experiences difficulty in fast-paced training sessions where he is to learn about new products. Tobias is an IT trouble-shooter who finds it nearly impossible to get the information he needs from coworkers who either phone him or stop by his desk for help and then provide them with an immediate answer.

What do these three employees have in common? They all have an auditory processing disorder, and they all have difficulty with auditory / verbal interactions.

What is an auditory processing disorder?

An auditory processing disorder (APD) interferes with an individual's ability to analyze or make sense of information taken in through the ears. This is different from problems involving hearing, such as deafness or being hard of hearing. Difficulties with auditory processing do not affect what is heard by the ear, but do affect how this information is interpreted, or processed by the brain.

An auditory processing deficit can interfere directly with speech and language, but can affect all areas of learning and communication. When interactions in the workplace rely primarily on spoken language, the individual with APD may have serious difficulty understanding the conversation and / or directions, as well as responding verbally on the spot.

Individuals with APD’s may find it difficult to understand what someone is saying, especially in noisy environments. They may also be very sensitive to and easily distracted by background noise, and may struggle to follow conversations and respond to spoken questions. They will find it easier to understand information they read rather than information they hear. Individuals with APD may focus so hard on trying to understand the words in conversations that they miss social cues such as facial expressions, body language, voice pitch and tone, sarcasm and other forms of nonverbal conversation. They may withdraw from social situations because they have a hard time keeping up with the conversations.

For employees with APD, written instructions and directives are more likely to be effective than spoken ones. Notes, advanced organizers, and / or recordings of verbal presentations may be necessary to assure a more complete understanding when poor auditory attention is an issue. Because employees may also have difficulty comprehending complex sentence structure or rapid speech, they may process thoughts and ideas slowly and have difficulty explaining them. Allowing ample time for individuals to process auditory information and respond to it is vital. And remember that background noise is not conducive to optimal learning and understanding, so be cautious about where conversations take place.

Now let’s look at how Dalene, Ben, and Tobias were accommodated in their workplaces.

Dalene is the administrative assistant who found it difficult to take accurate notes. Her employer provided her with a smart pen that uses a special notebook. Not only does the pen record everything that she writes on the paper, but it also records the audio from the meetings so that Dalene can listen to it as many times as needed in order to make sure she got the details from the meeting.

Ben is the sales manager who experiences difficulty in fast-paced training sessions where he is to learn about new products. His employer provided him with written materials before the trainings so that he can become familiar not only with the products he will be learning about, but also the structure and layout of the training. His employer also agreed to record the trainings so he has a copy to refer back to later if needed.

Tobias, the IT trouble-shooter, was accommodated with a modified policy that will allow him to take questions and provide solutions in writing by email instead of from coworkers who either call him or stop by his desk for help. Since he has difficulty with immediate verbal responses, he will be expected to respond in email quickly to let the coworkers know that he received their request and is able to provide a quick solution, or let them know when to expect an answer at a later time.

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