My legs grow tense as a classmate’s whispers flood my ears. My breath becomes short as another taps his foot against the desk. My stomach lurches as I watch two students turn in their tests. Why can’t I block out the noise? Why can’t I answer the questions faster? Why am I the only one struggling? I must run while they walk, work while they sleep and prepare while they rest.
When I was diagnosed with a learning disability, my parents brought me to the most respected doctors in New York and enrolled me at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. However, that did not cure, fix or help me. Why? Because no doctor, teacher, parent or friend can change the world that tells me I have a problem. I am labeled with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), characterized as slow and viewed with pity.
I am not asking for sorrowful looks, sympathy hugs or uplifting pep talks. I am asking you to understand that the student in your classroom who needs extra time wasn’t daydreaming during the test. The girl who needs directions to be repeated is listening. The boy who is last to raise his hand has the answer.
These kids likely have APD, a learning disability that slows the comprehension of information. It is not their hearing that is impaired, but their auditory pathways. Information that is spoken can be difficult to process if said too quickly, in a loud place or in large chunks of speech. Having APD is like listening to a voicemail on a busy street while everyone else is listening to it in a quiet space. While most people can block out that background noise, people with APD hear that noise as if it is the message itself. When given directions, most brains organize the information, as if putting it into filing cabinets. Those with APD take longer to find the filing cabinets, which slows the pace at which they comprehend.
APD affects students in a variety of ways, but students with APD (and most other students) could benefit if we looked at our classrooms the way we look at our world: valuing everyone's uniqueness—in this case, the unique ways in which they learn. Here are some techniques that helped me.
1. Stimulate the Senses
In an art history class, we learned about the making of a blind arch. Rather than looking at a diagram, my teacher had four kids (including me) make an arch with our arms. Putting pressure on our formation and watching it collapse taught us how to make the most effective structure. I learned about arches by listening, watching and feeling, as opposed to simply listening and writing.
2. Teach With Variety
In a science class, my teacher gave us an outline of the notes, wrote them on the board and lectured us on them—supporting auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners. He allowed each student to retain the information in whatever ways that worked. In this class, no kid was left behind because every kid was supported.
3. Create a Quiet Learning Place
In order for all students to be able to focus, especially ones with APD, it is best to minimize all noise when students are working or trying to concentrate. Although it may seem helpful to speak in a quieter voice, for a student with APD, hearing whispers while working can actually be worse than hearing words spoken at normal levels. Although it may seem helpful to speak in a quieter voice, it is best to not talk at all.
I hope that, by writing to teachers and sharing my story, I can help the 10-year-old girl who cries when she gets home from school and tells herself she will never be smart. Although she may not feel intelligent when she goes to the library to finish a test, she must understand that she does not have a problem. She only feels like she has a problem because the world around her is unable to understand her intelligence. The day will come when she feels the way she learns is truly all right, but maybe that day will come sooner for her than it came for me.
Eliza is a high school senior in the Bronx, New York.