What’s in a label? With auditory processing disorder, a lot.

Kelli Johnson

By Kelli Johnson, MA

As a speech-language pathologist, I work with people who have a variety of communication issues. Some have diagnosed disorders; others don’t. Some have labels for their challenges; others don’t.

What matters most is that they get the right help for their specific difficulties with communication, not what those difficulties are called. But a label can carry a lot of weight for people who are neurodivergent.

I’m thinking now of the label of auditory processing disorder (APD). The term describes a group of difficulties related to speech and sound. People may have trouble locating the source of a sound. They may not pick up on the subtle differences in speech sounds. (The words fifty and fifteen might sound the same.) Words can get scrambled. Making conversation and following directions can be a struggle.

These difficulties aren’t in question. But the label is. Experts and researchers don’t agree on how to define, diagnose, or treat APD. They don’t even all agree that it’s a distinct disability. Some think the difficulties are related to other umbrella disorders.

But whether experts take one view or the other on the label itself, these challenges are real. And it’s important that they’re recognized. That’s part of the Understood mission — to bring light to differences so people can understand and support those who have them.

What some people call APD is a problem with how the brain processes what the ears hear. Still, the signs can be confusing. They can look a lot like the inattention of ADHD, and many people have both challenges. The signs can also look like receptive language disorder and learning differences. It’s important to know what’s going on in order to give the right help and support.

Despite the controversy over the label, the problems are clear: Trouble processing spoken information. Weak verbal memory. Difficulty understanding people in noisy settings.

As the debate goes on, here’s what I’d like people with an APD diagnosis (and their families, teachers, peers, and employers) to know about the label.

First, if you’ve ever felt like doctors, educators, or employers are skeptical of your diagnosis, I want to tell you that your struggle is real. Your life experiences are valid.

You may have to fend off misconceptions (from yourself and others) that you just aren’t paying attention. Or that you aren’t trying hard enough. Remember that you belong to a large community of people with similar struggles and a wide range of gifts.

Labels can have benefits. They can steer you to professional supports like speech-language therapy, where you can learn helpful strategies. Labels can also lead to services at school and accommodations at work — things like front-row seating and a quiet work space.

You may need to do extra homework to find out what an APD label means for you (or your child). Know the strengths and weaknesses that lie below it. Find people and professionals who hear you and support you. Take what benefits you can from the label.

But don’t get hung up on whether you do or don’t have the label of APD. The critical thing is to get the right type of help and to know you’re not alone.

Kelli Johnson, MA, is an educational speech-language pathologist who has worked with students from early childhood through 12th grade. She has provided services to speech- and language-impaired adults and children in a variety of medical and educational settings.

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