The Silent Challenge: Auditory Processing Disorder
by Kaitlyn Tatulli
My feet sprang back-and-forth—like Tigger’s tail from Winnie the Pooh—as I eagerly waited in the colorful, airless classroom. After a cloudy morning of nothing but spelling and Spanish class, I was keen to escape into the cool gym to practice for the first grade play. Just as we were about to make our escape like wild animals from a pen, when my loving first grade teacher stopped me and said, “Kaitlyn, your mad is here. You calve to go to your proctors appointment.” I repeatedly blinked, struggling to understand, and shifted the weight from my left foot to my right. She studied my face, knowingly took my hand, and walked me to my father—I had a doctor’s appointment.
I pressed my nose against the cold, glass car window and looked at the forming fog caused by my breathing. Where were we going? As I wondered, the infamous Barney audiotape frolicked along in the background. I turned my head to study my father’s face and he answered my question: “You have a quick proctors appointment, Kate. It won’t take long. The little chocolate store that you love is over here; we will chop there on the way pack.” I spread my lips apart to reveal a big smile—I love chocolate.
I dodged the wrinkly leaves as my father and I walked into the maroon stoned building. I hated these hallways—the ceilings were low, the lighting was sad, and I was always met with musky aromas—I knew where I was.
We entered hand-in-hand into the office. I was greeted with smiling, vaguely familiar faces of those who walked me into what looked like a recording studio. They put black earmuffs, which they called “hemphones,” on my head and sat me down in a glass Houdini-like box. I sat in there and did as I was told. The doctors, or how I heard it, proctors, had me perform a bundle of strange tasks: copying a picture without an eraser, completing puzzles, repeating words, and playing memory games. After I finished these games, they brought me into a sand-colored room where both of my parents were waiting for me—they looked worried. I ran to my mom and nuzzled my head into her warm lap; I was tired.
All was quiet when the doctors told my parents I had Auditory Processing Disorder, also known as APD. As always, I listened carefully to understand what the people around me were saying. I could understand parts, but like a cell phone going through a dead zone, my understanding would become fuzzy if there was background noise or if the person spoke softly, and just like that I would lose connection. As a result, to fill in the gaps, I looked at the faces I knew best, my parents’, to gain information or a better understanding from their body reactions. I could tell from them that this was not good. After the doctors were finished, as promised, my father took me to my favorite store—the chocolate store. I cheerfully skipped inside, swiftly picked out my favorite chocolate—a dark chocolate bar carefully covered in a layer of pink frosting—and forgot all about my parents’ reactions as the chocolate evaporated in my mouth like a melting ice pop in blistering-hot sun on a summer’s day.
Since I was so young, I was not yet able to fathom how my life would be affected or what it would be like to live with this disorder every day. I had no idea that I would forever struggle to have conversations with people or function in a loud environment, and that remembering or learning a lecture would be next to impossible. As I have grown with APD, I have learnt that the disorder is known as the “invisible disability” and can be categorized as a form of dyslexia. Most people who suffer from this condition have near perfect hearing and are strong academically in fields aside from reading, writing, verbal speech, and languages. APD causes the person suffering from the disorder to mix up words that sound the same. In addition, there is no cure for this disorder; it is relatively new to doctors and not extremely common. As a result, I have had to undergo years of speech therapy, in and out of school, and treatments to improve upon my basic skills of communication: language, comprehension, reading, and writing. Although I systematically underwent these tasks, I was basically oblivious to my disorder or difference.
I give a lot of credit to the teachers at my small, Catholic elementary and middle school, St. Pius X School, in Montville, New Jersey. I was just like Tigger, who was unconscious that he had a lisp or that he is famous for mispronouncing words. In other words, I did not view myself as different or less competent than my peers just because I, like Tigger, had trouble understanding others, and could not speak clearly or correctly pronounce words. Throughout the years at St. Pius, my teachers would call on me to read a passage from our textbooks to the class and I would answer questions and even give speeches to the parents in church or during special ceremonies. It was not until years later, when I watched the videos my parents took of me speaking, that I realized how different and challenged I sounded compared to others. Honestly, when I spoke I sounded like a muffled cow, so I’m sure people found it painful to listen to me. However, with the genuine love, dedication, and utter care from my teachers at St. Pius X, I was able to develop Tigger-like confidence and overcome my speech obstacle. Not only do I now speak fairly well, perhaps more importantly, I have the ability and self-confidence needed to speak in front of large crowds or hold an intelligent conversation with people without being fearful that my disorder will prevent them from understanding me. With the combination of my teachers’ expectations of me to participate in school and the emotional sensitivity they provided to me, my own self-efficacy—the belief and confidence that I can be successful—increased.
Although APD is supposed to stop someone from developing the ability, let alone talent, to read and write—or in other words, a career in the English field—I have found myself drawn to reading and writing, like Winnie the Pooh’s desire for honey. Ever since my fourth grade English class, I have known that I possess a love for writing, specifically creative writing. From that year on, I have dreamed of having a career in anything that involves writing. However, despite my love for writing, there was a slight problem with my dream: I was a horrible writer. Because of my APD, my thoughts or ideas would come out completely jumbled and incoherent; they sometimes do even today. Despite this issue, at this point in time I did not care if others could or could not understand my writing. I was just ecstatic that I had found another, more enjoyable way to communicate my feelings and thoughts with others. I spent the rest of my middle school years working to improve my writing by seeking extra help during lunch and recess. In addition, I spent a great deal of time, in and out of the classroom, learning from the works of some of the most talented writers—Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, and Robert Frost. From reading, I gained a great comprehension of literature, which landed me in the honors English class at my high school, Morristown-Beard School in New Jersey.
I would be lying if I said working with this obscure condition in high school was easy. During my sophomore year, I was granted the privilege of taking two English courses—one sophomore honors course and one advanced senior seminar. I was thrilled and motivated to improve my writing. However, two English classes meant double the papers and double the struggle with my APD. One day, after hours of stressful classes, I staggered up the stairs of the learning center—the school’s center for extra help—and collapsed like a car running out of gas and puttering to a stop, into the blue chair. I had two papers to write in two days. I opened up a dauntingly blank Word document on my computer and tried to write—but nothing would come out. I didn’t know how to say anything. My words were all jumbled. I was becoming frustrated and pressed my fingers deep into my forehead until I could feel the crevasses of my facial bones. The director of the learning center, who over the next three years would become like a second mother to me, could see my overwhelming frustration and asked me what was wrong. Like the beginning of a rainstorm, my tears began slowly and then came more rapidly. I told her I had APD.
Despite my fears, she did not judge or make fun of me. She simply hugged me, slid the plastic keyboard away from me and under her fingertips, and told me to begin to talk-out my paper. I closed my eyes tightly as the thoughts quickly began to flow out of my mouth. During this time, the room was silent; the only noise I heard was her fingers working feverishly to type my thoughts word-for-word. When I was finished, I opened my eyes, and the once blank Word document was now filled with many words. After that, when my APD seemed unmanageable we used this tactic, along with many others, to record my thoughts clearly to paper.
After receiving an assignment from my metaphysical poets English class, I immediately went to the learning center, skipping lunch, to start the long, but now invigorating process of writing. I pressed the slightly ajar door open and stepped into the teacher’s rectangular office. My black backpack met the carpet with a thump and I tossed the assignment sheet on the wooden cherry-maple table—the ideas were squirreling in my head like a whirlpool and I needed to get them out. Knowingly, my teacher smiled and handed me a black dry eraser marker as we stepped over to the seemingly unending blankness of the white board. She knew what was coming, and that neither she nor I would have time to eat lunch.
I began to scribble down my argument and the “so-what” of the paper—the two parts I always start with, as I deem them to be the most important. She read my hurried words and we began to banter like two seagulls that had just located an abandoned sandwich. Throughout this type of passionate discussion, I would write notes on the white board, which ultimately would evolve into an outline. This would be my writing process until my senior year of high school.
Due to an abundance of practice during my senior year of high school, I was able to better control my APD and solidify my writing process. Additionally, my teacher mandated me to aid other students in their writing and to help proofread their papers. Through recognizing and correcting other people’s errors, I developed the capability to identify specific issues in my own writing. Through my teacher’s recognition of my potential and her individualized approach to teaching, combined with my Tigger-stubborn hard work, I was able to crack part of the APD writing barrier that had been blocking me from reaching my dream.
Although I know that I am still far from being a skilled writer and that many of my peers are superior to me in their writing abilities, I believe that my APD has given me something unique which can be seen as an advantage—APD has given me strength: strength in my hope, strength in my resilience, and strength in my sensitivity to others. Because my verbal words are sometimes glossed over by teachers or peers, I have learned the importance of time. By taking time, people can listen to one another and understand what others are saying—instead of quickly judging their ideas based on how others speak. Time’s grace will unveil the individuals who stop to listen, to wait and hear one’s thoughts. In the interim, paper will pause to hear our thoughts and ignite our intelligence.
Kaitlyn Tatulli is majoring in psychology and journalism and minoring in philosophy and women’s/gender studies at Fairfield University. Now a sophomore, she was encouraged to share her experience by her freshman English professor. She is passionate about writing and helping others. She is the owner of the women’s online clothing boutique called Vibe Parade, and spends her free time creating or revamping businesses’ websites and social media presence. Overall, Kaitlyn aims to use her creativity, passion, and drive in order to better others in the larger community.
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