Learn more about the auditory system and how the sense of hearing impacts healthy childhood development!
What is the Auditory System?
When we hear a sound, it travels to our brains to be analyzed in order for us to generate a response. What should we do next? What is going on around us? Is the sound alerting us to something dangerous or important, like a fire alarm or a honking car horn? Is the sound quiet and calming, like classical music or the whirring of a fan?
The inner ear has two important organs that, as partners, have big jobs. In general, the cochlea translates and interprets every sound we hear (what is it?) and the vestibule helps move the sound along to the brain to integrate the sensations we receive and help process motor responses to the sound (what should I do next?). The inner ear and the sense of hearing also contributes to our vestibular system, helping us with movement and balance.
A Healthy Auditory System
Children with healthy auditory systems are able to respond to sounds naturally, looking when their names are called or turning their heads toward a sound. They are able to follow verbal directions from their teacher or parent. A child with a functioning auditory system is able to filter out sounds that are not important, such as a friend tapping his pencil on the neighboring desk, while tuning into sounds that are important, such as the teacher’s direction to start working on an assignment.
Most children function in noisy environments without missing a beat. They are neither distracted nor overwhelmed by common sounds and often react automatically, knowing just what to do when they hear familiar noises like the school bell or the alarm clock. Children typically enjoy toys and play activities that appeal to the auditory system, gravitating toward toys that make noise or activities that go along with a song.
Kids with healthy auditory systems have a healthy awareness of their environment, develop motor planning abilities to respond appropriately to sounds, and generate protective responses to dangerous situations. A fully functioning auditory system is also integral for the development of listening skills, communication, and social skills.
Problems With the Auditory System
Difficulties arise when the brain does not accurately interpret and respond to auditory information. Our brains help us listen, process what we hear, and understand what has been said. Some children misinterpret information they hear or miss subtle information such as a single word. For example, the phrase “line up for recess” is quite different from “line up behind Tommy for recess.” If a child misses one small part of a direction, it can change his response entirely.
Two more common examples of difficulties with the auditory system are hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity to sound. A child who is hypersensitive to auditory input is overwhelmed and even frightened by the volume, pitch, and unpredictability of common environmental sounds. This child may attempt to avoid and withdraw from noisy, crowded environments. He may startle easily or appear very distracted, focusing on every noise around him. This child may appear agitated and always ready to flee. A child that is hypersensitive to sound may show physical signs of avoidance such as covering his ears or ducking his head.
The opposite extreme is a child who is hyposensitive to sound. This child does not register important auditory cues in his environment. He may appear as though he does not hear the sounds around him and may not generate appropriate motor responses to auditory input (e.g. following directions, turning to look when his name is called, looking in the direction of a loud noise). He may be a noisy child, always talking, singing, humming, and making sounds to generate additional auditory input for himself. He may talk out loud while performing a task, prompting himself as he completes each step. He may not respond to you when you are speaking to him because he simply did not know you were talking to him. This child may also have difficulty remembering what you have told him.
It’s important to recognize that hearing and responding to environmental sounds is only one aspect of the auditory system. Auditory processing is an even more complex layer of the auditory system. Auditory processing refers to the ability to discriminate between similar sounds, tune into a speaker and pick up on pertinent information, and understand information presented verbally. You can learn more about auditory processing and auditory processing disorder by clicking through to The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s page on Auditory Processing Disorders. If your child exhibits any signs of difficulty with processing auditory input, seek advice from your physician and/or an occupational therapist who can guide your child in a safe, secure manner to develop and adapt this important sensory function.
Our Favorite Auditory Toys
1 – First Act Electronic Digital Drum Pad – Kids can record their own beats, practice the learning rhythm patterns, and explore 30 different drum sounds.
2 – Melissa & Doug Band in a Box – Create your own marching band with this fun set of 6 instruments!
3 – Pop Toobs – An all-time favorite in OT sessions – these simple little toys make the most awesome noise when you pull them apart and push them back together. Kids never get sick of playing with them and they’re great for hand strength too!
4 – Echo Microphone – Nothing’s more fun than playing with the sound of your own voice!
5 – Melissa & Doug Vehicles Sound Blocks – Kids can put the simple puzzles together and hear the sound each vehicle makes – great for auditory and visual skill-building!
6 – Soundtracks Game – Little ones will love listening to figure out what familiar sound is being played on the game CD – and finding the picture that corresponds with the sound on their game boards!
7 – Listen and Match Wooden Shakers – An awesome auditory challenge – shake each one of the sturdy wooden blocks to hear the sound it makes and find the second shaker that makes the same sound.
8 – Sleep Sheep – The perfect thing for some calming sensory input at bedtime, the Sleep Sheep is part cuddly stuffed animal and part white noise sound machine to help lull little ones to sleep!
9 – Melissa & Doug Sound Puzzle Bundle – A classic favorite (inset puzzles) with the added bonus of auditory feedback each time the child correctly places a piece!
10 – Musical Toys Rainmaker Shaker – This toy makes a mesmerizing rain sound and also provides an interesting and calming visual experience as the child watches the tiny balls trickle from the top of the rainmaker to the bottom.
Our Favorite Auditory Activities for Kids
Most children develop a strong auditory system simply through engaging in everyday play activities and life experiences There are many playful activities that can help promote the development of a healthy auditory system. Here are some of our favorites:
-Play with instruments
-Using microphones for sound enhancement
-Listening games and direction-following activities
–Singing songs that provide directions for movement and interaction (ie. old macdonald, hokey pokey, wheels on the bus, etc.)
-Using your own body to make sound (ie. snapping, stomping, clapping, humming)
-Using songs for learning and memory (ie. abc, months, etc.)
Want to learn more about sensory processing? Check out our book, Sensory Processing 101!
Read up on the rest of the sensory systems by checking out our entire series about sensory processing, including the following posts:
Check out our series on Sensory Processing Strategies for Teens & Older Kids.
Don’t forget to click over to Lemon Lime Adventures to learn even more about the Auditory System from Dayna!
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Any advice for a teen with auditory and vestibular disorders? Most of what I find is for young ones. While those activities were helpful then, I need new ideas to continue supporting his neurological development.
Hi Jenni! Thank you for your comment. YES!! Our children with any sort of combination of sensory difficulties need support throughout their development! Different challenges always occur at different stages in life. Although we specialize here in a younger population, there is a website we love called Sensory Smart Parent. Here is a link to a great article: http://www.sensorysmartparent.com/blog/2012/03/24/teenagers-and-sensory-issues-special-challenges-for-a-special-time/ This may also be a great site for further information. Also, Diane Henry has a useful handbook called Tools for Teens you may want to look into. Here is the link: http://shop.henryot.com/pk4/store.pl?view_product=32 We hope these will help you in your journey!
Thank you thank you!
Hello, I am writing to you from Belgium. We have just found out that our gifted child has auditory processing issues: very sensitive to sound, difficulty filtering, etc. Would occupational therapy help? Not even sure they exist here! Thank you. Best regards! Ellen
Daphne Fatter says
Great article! What about auditory sensory processing for adults? Do you have any recommendations for resources or activities that adults can do with auditory sensory processing issues?
Thanks so much
Thanks so much for the comment. This is a great question. Our expertise is definitely in dealing with the pediatric population. But here are a few resources we’ve come across that are geared toward adults with sensory processing needs:
Great article! Thanks for sharing this amazing and knowledgeable content.