As the world moves into an extended phase where masks and face coverings become routine, it is vital to consider those who have auditory processing difficulties as well as children and adults with Dyslexia, Autism and other labels where auditory processing challenges are common.
Face coverings and masks negatively affect many people’s listening abilities
Let us look at some of the elements of auditory processing that will be affected. Auditory processing is the ability to listen, process and respond to auditory information. Humans are usually able to hear within a range of about 20Hz – 20,000Hz, 20Hz being the lowest sound we can perceive with our ears.
When the face is covered with a mask, not only visual information is lost. Masks also mask auditory information. Higher frequencies of sound may be lost or reduced, and lower frequencies are increased. This is because the higher frequencies have less intensity and fade more rapidly than lower frequencies. High frequency sounds in speech include ‘s’, ‘th’ and ‘f’ and are around 5-6,000Hz whereas vowel sounds are lower frequency, around 250-500Hz. People with auditory processing problems may already have challenges with differentiating speech sounds that will be made considerably worse by someone speaking to them wearing a mask.
Masks are called masks because they mask!
The wearing of a face covering or mask will reduce the perception of higher speech frequencies whilst allowing low frequencies through the mask. This is known as auditory closure and is a common problem for people with auditory processing difficulties. If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, it sounds much more muffled! Being able to hear the difference between ‘fish’, ‘this’ or ‘fist’ will be more difficult, and you would need to understand the word in the context of the whole sentence. This is something many with auditory processing difficulties must do every day anyway.
A further problem is that many people with auditory processing difficulties use lip reading as a tool to support their listening ability. This is not possible when someone is wearing a mask so makes processing even more difficult.
When someone speaking to you is not only wearing a mask but also a plastic face shield, the auditory impacts are even more severe. Their voice will hit the shield and be directed backwards meaning that if you are in front of them, you are relying on reflected sound to be able to process what is being said. Many people with auditory processing difficulties find it difficult to locate and attend to sounds in space. If the voice is coming from an ‘unknown’ direction, having been reflected from walls or other surfaces, it can be difficult to process whilst deleting out any other sounds in the environment. This is known as Auditory Figure-Ground and is the most common problem for anyone with auditory processing challenges.
Auditory information is added to other non-verbal information to help us understand the emotional content of communication. Our faces express numerous emotions that are lost when someone is wearing a mask. This is a serious consideration for anyone as it is easy to misinterpret what is being said when we do not have the subtle facial information to tell whether someone is happy, sad, or angry. It is easy to see how, in the pictures above, we may misunderstand the emotion that someone is feeling.
Moving forward in this strange new world, it is important for us all to be aware that for someone with auditory processing problems, they will find it even more challenging than normal to process information in a timely manner. There are certain things that can be done to help: -
1. Be aware that people with auditory processing and other developmental and learning challenges may take even longer than usual to process information.
2. Allow people more time to process what is being said.
3. Check understanding – This does not mean simply saying “Do you understand?” but asking them to paraphrase what has been said if it is important information or instructions.
4. Remove masks, coverings, and visors where it is safe to do so before speaking.
5. Remember that masks reduce the auditory as well as visual information that is so basic in everyday communication.
Alan Heath is the Director of Learning Solutions and International Representative for The Listening Program and Advanced Brain Technologies. He is the co-developer of The Movement Program and TAVS (Test of Auditory and Visual Skills).