What You Sound Like to Me In a Crowd

bad_hearing_iconThis is my vaguely annual post to remind people that I have Auditory Processing Disorder. It’s the hearing equivalent of dyslexia in that I have a hard time turning sounds into words. This gets especially true in a noisy environment. Yeah, I know, you have the same thing. Mine is… well, very likely a lot worse than you can imagine. In a noisy environment, I’m functionally deaf, while everyone else around me is still talking, making the very noise that’s keeping me from understanding the person right in front of me.

I wrote about this at length last year. I don’t really have much to add apart from the fact that it has gotten worse since them. Meh, such is life. Other things make me happy, so cancel the pity party.

Anyway, I did recently come across this video. Its original purpose was to demonstrate to English speakers what English sounds like to people who don’t speak English. That is, it has the same accent, the same distribution of phonemes, etc., but it’s all gibberish. Well, when I get into a loud environment like a crowded restaurant, a lively party, or heaven-help-me a stadium, this is maddeningly like what people sound like to me.

(The actual dialog starts around 0:30.)

So, when you see me trying to read your lips at a social function, bear in mind that you might be sounding like these people to me.

Otter eat a possum’s dish odor?

Or maybe that’s “Auditory Processing Disorder”. Yeah, that’s probably what it was.

I do a post about my weird hearing problems approximately once a year, or whenever I forget how long it’s been. So, if this is old news, move along, nothing new to see here, but if you have no idea how an otter could even eat the odor of some possum’s dish, then you should keep reading.

I have Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). It has very little to do with otters, possums, or the smell of their respective dishes. Rather, it’s a problem with the way my brain processes spoken language. My physical hearing is actually quite good, generally better than someone half my age, though that may simply be the unexpected benefit of skipping all those rock concerts in my youth.

APD is actually a broad spectrum of neurological hearing disorders, but the more common forms affect the processing of language. In that respect, it is often compared to dyslexia, a learning disorder impairing the ability to read.

For me, I have a hard time turning that long blur of spoken syllables into discrete words with meaning. Sometimes this takes the form of hearing the wrong thing, i.e. “Otter eat a” instead of “auditory”, and sometimes it makes even less sense. I can hear the syllables just fine. In many cases, I can even run them back through my memory a few times to try to parse them. But sometimes, even having it repeated slowly and clearly isn’t enough. As a final resort, I have had to ask the speaker to repeat the blurry part and even have them spell it, letter by letter, including where the spaces would go.

This is especially bad when I’m in a noisy environment. Now, before you jump to the phrase, “I know exactly what you mean,” let me slow you down. It’s possible you’re suffering from a form of APD. It’s not known really how widespread it is, because it is usually only diagnosed in the most severe cases. Everyone else shrugs it off and moves on. For me, it got too bad to shrug off. I reached the point where I was starting to feel deaf at parties, and yet I could hear and appreciate classical/instrumental music with extreme fidelity.

So, when I was diagnosed, they not only told me that I was not going deaf, but they were also able to quantify how bad my APD is. Specifically, in a noisy environment, my hearing drops to the bottom 1 percentile. That means that 99% of the population hears better than I do in that situation. In fact, they told me that by that measurement, I would be considered deaf under various ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines.

So, yeah, you may experience something similar, but believe me when I say that it’s 99% likely to be worse for me. And it’s not merely quantitative, i.e. I’ve got a NUMBER. At that point, it becomes a qualitative difference. You’re still managing, while I’ve been reduced to nodding and smiling, often with no idea of what people are saying.

I find this is even worse if the speaker is a man, because his lower voice blends in with the background noise more than a higher-pitched woman’s voice. Song lyrics are even worse, because they break the rhythms of normal speech. When I listen to a song for the first time, I will pick out perhaps ten words spread out over the entire song, so don’t expect me to have great appreciation for the insight they offer.

I’ve tried hearing aids, but they only make it worse by distorting the signal. There’s no pill to treat this, and the auditory training therapies have not proven effective. My particular variant of APD seems to happen mostly in children, and they grow out of it during adolescence. Mine started in adolescence and worsened over the years. It’s something of a mystery, but there’s not much research funding to turn me into a cure-hungry lab rat.

So yeah, that sucks. But I’m not curling up into an invitation-only pity party. There are some things I can do that help me get by.

The first thing I do is tell people about it in occasional messages like this. If they remember it, then maybe they’ll have a better idea of what’s happening when I stare at them, clueless to the question they just asked me. It also helps them to understand when I say I’d rather handle something by email than phone. And finally, when I keep asking them to repeat themselves, they treat me with patience instead of merely assuming I’m an idiot. (Well, at least no more of an idiot that I otherwise prove myself to be.)

I’ve also started to read lips. I don’t do it well enough to eavesdrop through a telescope, but it helps me pick up extra information about the words being spoken. For example, T and P sound similar to me, but they look quite different on someone’s face. So, if it looks like I’m not maintaining eye contact when we speak, that’s why. I’m not looking at your eyes. I’m looking at your mouth. Except for the ladies, of course, when my eyes may be drawn a little further south on rare occasions. Okay, not so rare.

I try to stay near walls. I find I can improve my comprehension if I can arrange to hear noise from only one direction. Put me in the middle of a noisy room, and I’m much worse off than if I’m next to a sound-absorbing wall.

I ask people to repeat themselves. This one gets tricky, because what I’m really after is a word-for-word repetition of what they just said. Not everyone understands that, and they assume that I merely did not comprehend the concepts involved and launch into a different explanation that I can’t hear either. Also, not everyone is really capable of repeating what they just said, word-for-word. It’s a skill, and not everyone has had need to develop it.

I ask people to face me when they speak. In a face-to-face conversation, you would think this is not much to ask, but you’d be surprised. “Look at that tiger over there,” is often spoken towards the tiger, not towards the listener. Sitting side-by-side in a car, the conversation is usually directed towards the windshield. There are a whole host of times when it’s easy to say something facing away, and most of the time, the other person hears you just fine. Alas, I don’t.

I also sometimes use an interpreter, preferably a woman whose speech patterns are familiar to me. I’ll usually place her between myself and the other speaker, a little off to my right. They know that if I turn to them in the middle of a conversation, I need to have the last few words repeated. They do this, slowly and distinctly, and can sometimes even identify the troublesome words and even clarify them with additional context, e.g. “auditory, as in sounds or music.” I am eternally grateful to these women for this service, and if you see one of them doing this in our conversation, please don’t think she’s interrupting. She is helping me have our conversation.

So, that’s what’s going on with my hearing. If we’re ever at a party or a conference and I ask you about the otter eating the possum’s dish odor, now you’ll know what I’m talking about.