Sensory Processing: The Auditory System

Categories: Sensory | Sensory Series

As we go through each sensory system during this blog series, I like to think about my own preferences in that area as I write about it.  The auditory system is definitely a big one for me.  I don’t know about you, but I am someone who always needs to turn down the music in the car when I’m trying to focus on directions.  While others may blast music on their way home from work, I frequently prefer a silent commute.  If things are too loud in my environment, I simply cannot focus.  Because I myself have many auditory sensitivities, I find that I am even more aware of the auditory components of environments and activities when working with my students.  That being said, the auditory system is an interesting and important sensory system that impacts our ability to complete many important daily routines.  Let’s take a closer look at it today! 

What is the auditory system?

The auditory system is our sense of sound.  We are born with this skill. It is not a skill we can learn – we can either hear or we can’t. 

Why is it important?

The auditory system works closely with the vestibular system which helps regulate movement, balance and coordination.  There are two components of the auditory system, defensive and discrimination, which we will explore below.  

The auditory system develops initially with a defensive component. When babies hear loud noises, they startle.  Eventually our brains help us understand if certain sounds are a threat or not. These skills are precursors to our ability to actually listen to sounds and understand their meaning.  Truly listening and understanding sounds comes as we integrate sensory systems and interact purposefully with our environment. 

The second component of the auditory system is discrimination.  Auditory discrimination helps us understand more details about what we hear, such as where sounds come from, remembering verbal directions, filtering out background noise and associating sounds with experiences.

When the defensive and discrimination components of the auditory system are working well together, we can respond appropriately to auditory input.  However, if this doesn’t happen, we produce a less appropriate response, which can lead to difficulty engaging in important school activities and daily routines.

What does it look like when a child is having difficulty with this system?

If a child is having difficulty with the auditory system, he may display some behaviors that can impact his ability to learn or perform important daily routines.  In general, we can overrespond, underrespond or seek sensory input. Check out this post for an overview of those terms.

Some children may overrespond or avoid auditory input. These children reactly quickly and negatively to loud sounds.  They may cover their ears, scream, or yell. These children are easily distracted by noises in the environment.

Some children may underrespond to auditory input.   They tend to seem unaware of sounds that others are aware of.  They don’t consistently respond to name (rule out hearing loss), say ‘what’ a lot, have difficulty locating sound, and may need directions repeated frequently.

Then there are the students who seek auditory input. These students love loud noisy environments. They make their own silly sounds, enjoy the sounds of others, may turn up the volume on the music or TV.  They may also constantly use an ‘outside voice’ no matter the environment.  

What can I do?

There a variety of ways you can help students who have difficulty processing auditory information.  Here are some general ideas to get you started, please be sure to consult with your OT for specific recommendations.

For students who over respond to auditory input, be sure to prepare them whenever you know of a loud, unexpected event that is upcoming, such as a fire drill or assembly.  You can try noise cancelling headphones to help them manage the sound.  Consider the noise level of your classroom and how that may impact students.

For students who under respond to auditory input, think of ways to compensate for what they may miss.  Try pairing auditory input with visual information when it comes to classroom routines and activities.

For students who seek auditory information, try thinking of ways to incorporate that input into their routines.  You can try having the student listen to music, books on tape, using a noise machine or musical instruments.  

Students who struggle with auditory processing can have difficulty with speech and language skills as well.  Because the auditory and vestibular systems are so closely related, sometimes incorporating movement activities or using a swing with your students can help progress their speech and language skills.  


This blog is for informational purposes only.  Please consult your OT for specific recommendations.  


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