Can't process spoken speech — which makes school difficult!

Originally Published: November 7, 2008 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 19, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I have trouble following spoken speech. It's always made school difficult for me and now it's one of the reasons why I think I'll have to quit college (I'm on leave right now). I would listen to lectures or go to instructors for extra help, but my brain just wouldn't absorb anything it heard. This put a huge burden of self-instruction on me and it made it impossible for me to participate in class discussions.

I think this tendency affects me in other ways too. For example, I don't and never have been able to sit through movies or watch TV — I never know what's going on in them. In daily interactions I manage OK with processing short exchanges of information or instructions, but I don't have "conversations" at all unless it's absolutely necessary, and when I do it's exhausting and unpleasant (I speak VERY little and have never had a friend, so it's no exaggeration to say that I don't have conversations).

Until college, I was always able to compensate for this difficulty by just studying hard and teaching myself. I got high grades and was going to a reputedly good college. Can you suggest any explanation for a problem of this sort and how to deal with it so that I might be able to graduate from college?

Dear Reader,

First off, you definitely deserve kudos for your academic success. Excelling in high school and getting into college despite struggling to understand daily speech shows real determination. Based on your description, you may have a learning disability that involves difficulty with auditory processing. However, the best way to find out more is to be evaluated by a speech and language professional. With the right diagnosis, you'll be able receive academic and personal supports to help you graduate college.

Problems understanding speech can be related to a condition called Auditory Processing Disorder (also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder) or auditory comprehension deficit (so-called "word deafness"). Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) is a learning disability that interferes with the brain's ability to process or interpret sound, including human speech. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, people with APD may have trouble remembering spoken information or following complicated directions. APD can also cause difficulties with reading, spelling, and vocabulary comprehension. A variety of treatments and supports are available for people with APD including headsets that reduce background noise, environmental modifications such as better classroom acoustics, exercises that build language skills, and different methods of auditory training. The Learning Disabilities Association of America also has information about a variety of supports for APD and other learning disabilities.

Since many learning disabilities cause similar symptoms, a speech and language pathologist will be able to provide the best diagnosis and give you individual recommendations. Your health care provider can make a referral for a speech and language evaluation. If you are a Columbia student, you can contact the Office of Disability Services (ODS) via email or by calling x4-2388 (212 854 2378 on a TTY phone) to get a referral. Counseling and Psychological Services can also help Columbia students get a referral for the proper evaluation.

Once you have a diagnosis, ODS or the counterpart at your school can help you arrange academic accommodations and personal supports. To apply for accommodations, Columbia students should register with ODS as soon as possible after beginning classes. The registration process includes a formal application, verification of student's need for accommodations and disability status, and an orientation meeting at ODS. After registration, ODS will help coordinate any necessary accommodations such as note-taking services or testing accommodations. 

Although there are a variety of supports on campus for students with disabilities, you are your own best advocate. Speaking up and asking for help can be difficult, but remember that "reasonable accommodations" are a legal right. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of disabled people, including students with learning disabilities. By law, colleges are required to guarantee you an equal opportunity for success. However, the ball is in your court to when it comes to seeking out the help you need.

You might find it helpful to learn about other students' experiences with learning disabilities by reading the Related Q&As below. It may seem overwhelming, but you've all ready taken a big first step towards getting the diagnosis and support you need to succeed academically. Best of luck in your college career!

December 19, 2008


To the reader:

I have the same problem, though not to the degree that you seem to have, and I also have a nasty case of ADD. I know, also, that I'm a visual learner and have made a point of...

To the reader:

I have the same problem, though not to the degree that you seem to have, and I also have a nasty case of ADD. I know, also, that I'm a visual learner and have made a point of using that knowledge to my benifit. I take notes, plain and simple. I started it in middle school and have carried it through to adulthood. I got so good at it that I could transpose one word at a time (spoken) onto paper, while the teacher was talking. Maybe there's a way that you can practice this, as well. Maybe you could look into buying or borrowing a recorder for lectures which you can use to play back the lesson at your own pace, just like little snippets of conversation.

Good luck!
Thirty-five and doing just fine