Autism and Auditory Processing Disorders

What does it mean to say that an autistic person has an auditory processing disorder? As defined by the National Institutes of Health, an auditory processing disorder is when something affects the processing or interpretation of information from sound. Autistic people with auditory processing disorders can hear, but they have difficulty making sense out of -- or perceiving -- what they hear. For example, they may have a hard time understanding if there is background noise, or they may miss words.

Possible Causes of Auditory Processing Disorder in Autism

Auditory processing disorders are fairly common in children with autism. The cause(s) are unknown, but there are some theories. One theory holds that the brain's hippocampus, which is responsible for processing auditory information, may be "immature" in people with autism.

Another possibility, according to researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, is that children with autism are hearing normally, but are processing sound more slowly than non-autistic children.

In another theory, researchers at universities in Finland and the United States wrote that autistic children do not pay attention to certain sounds and that their attention shifts slowly. An interesting observation these researchers mentioned was that autistic children actually preferred odd sounds to the sound of their mother's voice. At the same time, they paid attention to and understood music well.

To examine the question of whether sensory processing is impaired in children with autism, another study compared the responses of high-functioning autistic children to speech sounds (vowels) versus musical tones. The result was that sound processing and sound discrimination was found to be normal in the autistic children.

However, they did not pay attention to changes in speech.

Help for Autism and Auditory Processing Disorder

There are techniques and technologies available to help autistic children with auditory processing disorders. One such technique is auditory integration training.


Auditory Processing Disorder in Children. Accessed March 2010.

Bauman, M.L., & Kemper, T.L. The Neurobiology of Autism. (The Johns Hopkins Series in Psychiatry and Neuroscience) Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Brain Imaging May Help Diagnose Autism. Accessed March 2010.

Ceponiene R, Lepistö T, Shestakova A, Vanhala R, Alku P, Näätänen R, Yaguchi K. "Speech-sound-selective auditory impairment in children with autism: They can perceive but do not attend." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2003 April 29; 100(9): 5567-5572. (Free at; PMCID: PMC154385)

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