In my opinion, and I have quizzed some of the best minds who are experts in autism, the very condition of autism suggests an auditory disconnect. To put it another way, if you have autism, you almost certainly have some kind of auditory processing problem and many times visual processing deficit. Autism by its very definition says the brain is not able to make sense of the world — and that is the foremost task of newborns . . . to figure out what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to.
Background About the Brain and Its Development
When a child comes into this world with billions of brain cells, in order to process information more efficiently, those speech sounds that are repetitive within their environment are the ones that ultimately are retained. So babies are born with the ability to discriminate any spoken language: Chinese, English, Swahili, and so on. Once the sounds he hears again and again are established, the brain sloughs off all the other cells that would discriminate Chinese, Swahili, or Tagalog. This streamlines and allows the brain to anticipate sounds made by Mom or Dad and begin to put meaning behind those sounds thus making sense of the world around him.
What Happens in the Autistic Brain?
What happens in the autistic brain is that the glial cells keep accumulating and storing rather than effectively sloughing off. The result is a kind of white noise or static in the brain that is exhausting to deal with. If, on the other hand, we are able to make stronger connections than these random ones the “inefficient brain” is producing, then the calming effect of making sense of auditory input is a desired outcome.
This is a simplified explanation, but it bolsters the case for doing brain training for autistics, because their brains, or any brain, can benefit from improved processing. For a person to benefit from brain training, it’s necessary for them to sit and be task-oriented for a minimum of 30 minutes in 10-minute intervals, to tolerate headphones (we need to target the auditory input and not have interference from ambient noise in the training environment), and to do this five times a week over the course of four to six months.
It is a huge commitment of time and energy, but here’s the good news . . . the training helps these youngsters sleep better, promotes language (because they are making better sense of the language around them), helps organize logical and rational thinking so comprehension is improved, and desensitizes sound-avoidance sensitivity.
I have not in my 25 years of doing this seen one autistic youngster who did not truly enjoy working on a computer. I think this is because it doesn’t require them to “maintain eye contact” and it is not another human judging their answers as “right” or “wrong” or becoming impatient with them.
The training itself actually slows down stimuli to 80 ms, so that the task is coming at them at a speed where they can actually tolerate and make sense of what is being asked of them. After they are able to do the task with 80% success, the stimuli speeds up ever so slightly to 65 ms and so on until they are processing at warp speed and no longer is their system overwhelmed.
So How is Auditory Processing Deficit Related to Autism?
The “official” answer to the question, “How is auditory processing deficit related to autism?” is that an autistic person cannot have auditory processing deficit because of their diagnosis. I don’t pretend to fully understand that answer. I suspect it’s because if it were something autistics could be diagnosed with, then insurance would have to cover the cost of the therapy to eliminate it. So the answer is to just disallow by virtue of the diagnosis.
My view is that it is a brain and we can improve processing in any brain with therapy. Has this proven to be true? Yes and yes. Time and time again, we have seen positive outcomes from doing this training with autistic children.
Do I care if it meets the criteria of the insurance companies?
No. The only sad part of this is that it can be a financial burden to families to afford that many hours of therapeutic intervention.
Therein lies the problem. But if we can help people who happen to be autistic lead more productive lives, hold jobs, live independently, communicate their wants and needs, pay taxes, etc., then we will have improved our communities immeasurably. That, for me, is a quality of life issue and worth fighting for.