Receptive language problems vs. auditory processing problems.
I see people confuse these things all the time, so this is just an attempt to differentiate them. Because I have them both. And they’re worlds apart, completely different, even though sometimes they have similar results ona superficial level.
Auditory Processing Disorders
So a lot of people know about CAPD, Central Auditory Processing Disorder, and a lot of autistic people are diagnosed with it, or could be diagnosed with it. CAPD basically means that whether or not you have any actual hearing problem, your brain has trouble making sense out of what you hear. It often results in problems like:
- Trouble differentiating between different sounds in words. Like th vs f, ch vs sh, things like that. Similar-sounding words get confused with each other. Some people can barely differentiate between any consonants at all while other people only have trouble differentiating between very similar consonants in very similar contexts.
- Trouble picking out one voice out of many voices. So if two people are talking, you can have trouble focusing in on one of them, or you can get the conversations confused and mixed up. Or it just sounds like a jumble.
- Words may just sound like a jumble of sounds that you can’t make out anything about at all.
- Trouble hearing words against background noise.
- Trouble remembering auditory information.
- Trouble paying attention to auditory information.
- Auditory distortions, both word and non-word.
- Tendency to overload quickly when dealing with auditory information.
And that’s just a short list of problems, there’s a lot more. But basically the thing about auditory processing disorders is that they are not language disorders. They affect your ability to understand language through auditory channels. If they’re severe enough, they can prevent learning language for the same reason that a hearing loss can prevent learning language. But they are not, themselves, language problems. They’re hearing problems, they’re just brain-based hearing problems instead of ear-based hearing problems.
Receptive language problems
Receptive language problems mean trouble comprehending language. This means language in all of its forms: spoken, written, or sign language, although depending on the person, some of those may be easier or harder than others for various reasons. But basically, a receptive language problem isn’t based in hearing, it’s based in the words themselves.
The best way I can contrast an auditory processing disorder with a receptive language disorder is by extremes:
1. You hear all the sounds in the words perfectly, you have no trouble differentiating any of the consonants, you have no trouble with any aspect of actually hearing the words. If you wanted, you could repeat back the words verbatim with no trouble. And yet you can get no meaning out of the words at all.
2. You understand that words are supposed to have meaning, you can think the words just fine, things like that. But when you actually hear the words, they sound jumbled, garbled, muttered, mumbled, or like gibberish, or you have trouble differentiating some of the words from others, or things like that. But you know they’re words and you can get meaning out of them if you could only hear them properly.
The first is a receptive language problem.
The second is an auditory processing problem.
When I was growing up, I had severe receptive language problems and much milder auditory processing problems (and severe visual processing problems). They interact with each other in various ways, but they are not the same thing.
Having a receptive language problem means that you have trouble understanding all language. Sometimes it even means that you don’t know language exists, or could exist. Words are just sounds – sounds that you may be able to make out perfectly well, but they don’t have meaning. And that’s the difference: Whether the problem is the sound, or whether the problem is that you can’t get meaning out of words. A receptive language problem is a problem of meaning, not a problem of sensory processing.
Severe enough sensory processing issues can lead to receptive language problems, though. Because if you can’t process sound well enough to hear words, you’re not going to hear the words, and you’re not going to develop the ability to understand words unless you find some alternate way to get words into your brain. But there’s still a difference – receptive language problems that arise on their own, are a core cognitive issue, not a hearing or visual issue.
Receptive language problems can do very strange things to cognitive and language development. Some people with receptive language problems can become accomplished mimics who can parrot back what we know other people expect to hear, and mask those problems altogether. (This is apparently a known thing that even happens to people who lose receptive language during brain injuries and the like: It can sometimes take really specific testing to keep them from fooling you into believing they understand every word you’re saying.) Other people with receptive language problems aren’t able to compensate in that way.
Receptive language problems often change in intensity over time, or even over the course of a day, so at some times a person may understand language relatively well, and at another time they may not be able to understand it at all.
My situation at this point in my life is that I can understand language, but it’s always a struggle to do it. It’s like every time I have to understand language, I’m climbing a cliff. And every time I have to pay attention to something else I let go and fall back down to the ground, where language doesn’t exist. And then if I want to understand language I have to climb the cliff again.
Sometimes I’m not able to make the climb, or to make the climb as high as other people.
My receptive language problems also shaped the entire form of my expressive language to the point that speech is unusable and writing is usable but difficult, and that’s a whole nother story in itself.
But basically I hear people throwing around the words ‘receptive language problems’ and 'auditory processing problems’ interchangeably. And most of the time it seems like they’re actually talking about auditory processing problems. I’ve found that among autistic people online, auditory processing problems seem much more common than serious receptive language problems. This is probably because only some people with serious receptive language problems manage to outgrow or overcome them enough to communicate easily online. Whereas lots and lots of people with auditory processing problems learn language and have fewer problems with communicating online. So in online groups of people, CAPD is going to be more heavily represented than severe receptive language problems.
But lots of people have both, and people can have mild receptive language problems as well. And for many autistic people, receptive language becomes iffy under stress, even if the rest of the time it seems fine. Sort of like expressive language can go away under stress even in people with no significant delays in expressive language early in life.
Anyway, I hope I’ve made it easier to differentiate between the two. And I hope I haven’t just added to the confusion. My brain is kind of iffy at the moment, because I’m sleepy.