Auditory Processing and Language Processing: What’s the Difference?

Understanding Language Processing

Boy in Speech Therapy

Language comprehension…language processing…auditory processing… what does it all mean? The various terminology used to describe a child’s difficulty with listening can be overwhelming to say the least. A first encounter with these terms might feel perplexing as parents search for the best possible help to meet their child’s needs.

A recent surge in public awareness of auditory processing disorders has led to many misconceptions about what this disorder really is (and what it is not). The term “auditory processing disorder” is frequently applied loosely, and often incorrectly, to any individuals having trouble with listening and processing spoken language. However, there are several possible underlying causes for listening difficulty.

Auditory Processing and Language Processing: What’s the Difference?

Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) refers to how the central nervous system takes in auditory information. It is an auditory deficit, not to be confused with other higher-order cognitive, language or related disorders. A child with an auditory processing disorder is able to hear sounds, but their brain interprets these sounds atypically. Although gathering information across many disciplines is very helpful in diagnosing CAPD, the actual diagnosis must be made by an audiologist.

Language processing refers to the ability to attach meaning to auditory information and formulate an expressive response. It is an extremely important skill that affects many areas of a child’s life, so it is critical that it be correctly identified and effectively addressed.

Symptoms of a language processing disorder might include behaviors such as:

• Using generic language instead of a specific word (e.g. saying “the thing” instead of “the notebook”)

• Taking a long time to respond to a question

• Experiencing difficulty following long or complicated directions

• Naming a general category instead of a specific word (e.g. saying “food” instead of “cake”)

• Using descriptions instead of the intended word (e.g. saying “the yellow thing for writing” instead of “pencil”)

• Being quick to say “I don’t know” in response to a question

• Having difficulty understanding humor or idioms

• Feeling lost when listening to stories with lots of events and characters

Why we need to understand the difference:

In order to effectively address a child’s difficulty with listening, it is critical to correctly understand where the breakdown is occurring. For example, some children with ADHD might have trouble comprehending or remembering verbal information, even though their neural processing of auditory information is intact. Their ability to process the information is actually impacted by difficulty with attention, as opposed to the suspected auditory deficit.

Because the behaviors of CAPD, ADHD and language processing disorders can look similar at times, children are at risk of being misdiagnosed. Treatment approaches for each of these disorders vary significantly,so a correct understanding of the underlying deficit will ultimately result in the most effective treatment approach for a child’s specific needs.

How parents can help their child with language processing difficulties:

• Use visual support to supplement auditorally presented information

• Present new information in a multi-modality and context-rich environment to tap into the other senses

• Allow more “thinking time” to prevent unnecessary pressure during moments of difficulty

• Encourage your child to request repetition or help, rather than simply saying “I don’t know” during moments of difficulty

• Encourage your child to seek out a “study buddy” to check information during class assignments

• Make sure your child is ready to listen before you begin speaking

• Explain idioms or figurative language to your child. For example, don’t assume your child knows what you mean when you say “keep a lid on it”

• Use a tape recorder to record class lectures

• Increase your child’s awareness of his or her strengths by providing frequent positive encouragement

11 replies
  1. maureen Evans
    maureen Evans says:

    This is a superb article about the differences in language and auditory processing disorders. These crop up in IEP’s and many parents never fully understand the difference and how important the distinction truly is in determining an effective treatment plan!

    Thank you Deanna!

  2. Whiteyd
    Whiteyd says:

    This was a very informative article explaining the differences between language and auditory processing disoreders. However, I do have some questions I’m hoping you can answer: at what age do you typically evaluate for a language processing disorder? What method do you use for the evaluation process (ex. informal observation, standardized assessment tools, checklists…)?

  3. Kirstinkilroy
    Kirstinkilroy says:

    Great explanation. I have two daughters with language processing disorders. It took a number of years to get my older daughter(now 12) diagnosed due to the lack of support from her school. She was first diagnosed with ADD but I knew there was still something more there. I also have three boys, two of which have ADHD. So I knew that it wasn’t just ADD with my daughter, she still struggled a great deal, even on ADD medication. I had CAD testing done, and she was on the border. I finally had an in depth Language Evaluation done. She was then diagnosed with a significant Receptive/Expressive Language Processing Disorder/Dyslexia. I have seen a great improvement in not only her school work but with her self esteem and confidence after FINALLY being given the appropriate services in school. My second daughter(6) is following the same path. However, with her, the language issues are much more obvious. She had early intervention for speech and was in the special education preschool class and is now in the special ed first grade class. This is only because I was now aware of this disorder and knew what to watch for because I went through it with my older daughter. The school still tried to convince me that my younger daughter did not need any services, but I persisted and got her where she needs to be. She was in the special ed full day kindergarten program (definitely where she needed to be) she showed improvement over the year so the school tried to convince me she was all better and no longer needed the special ed class. After their testing they found she tested within the normal range and has no learning disability, I refused to have her sent back to the regular class. I am sure if she does not continue to receive these special ed services she will do very poorly. I will have CAD testing done on her when she is old enough. I have a strong feeling she has some issues there. I am positive she has a language processing disorder, she consistently exhibits at least 6 of the behaviors you listed above indicating that she may have a language processing disorder.

  4. Sister M
    Sister M says:

    This continues to be a difficult thing to distinguish, in my son’s case. An audiologist did diagnose CAPD. A private neuro-psychologist had earlier diagnosed him with Mixed Expressive/Receptive Language Disorder, and told the school that my child specifically needed the Wilson program to learn to read. Our school rejected the Language Disorder, and my son did suddenly make great leaps in reading without it. But shortly thereafter he began stuttering, which could be related to Language Disorders? The school psychologist said he met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. This still is really confusing to me, mainly because all the private doctors and school experts cannot come to an agreement. Advice??

  5. Alex Trodder
    Alex Trodder says:

    It’s important to understand the differences between an auditory processing disorder and a language processing disorder. As you mentioned, an auditory processing disorder is where the brain receives auditory signals but the way that these signals are interpreted is jumbled or atypical. Language processing disorders can deal with different aspects and areas of the brain. Being able to distinguish the between the two can help ensure that you see the right specialist for treatment.


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