Ben was a happy, playful baby—a delight to his whole family. But by the time he turned three, they could see that something was wrong. He couldn’t seem to make sense of people’s sentences; and in turn, he barely spoke words at all. And yet medical tests showed that his hearing was normal!

With a child psychiatrist father and a mother who was a registered nurse, Ben could not have been born into a more supportive family. Their quest for help initially led to labels like “autistic,” or “retarded,” but these words simply didn’t fit the loving, intelligent, but frustrated little boy that his parents knew.

Finally, at the age of 6, Ben was diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition which affects many thousands of children but which often goes undetected.

But there is a growing body of experts out to change all that. Dr. Teri Bellis, Chair of the Department of Communication Disorders at the University of South Dakota and author of When the Brain Can’t Hear, has devoted her career to understanding how our brains make sense of sound. “There’s a lot more to hearing than just the ears,” she explains. To understand fully, “our brains must get all the chunks and pieces” of information that our ears receive. With Auditory Processing Disorder, those pathways just aren’t clear.

So how can you tell if your child has APD? According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, children will show:

  • Difficulty paying attention and following multi-step directions
  • Trouble with listening and comprehending
  • Language Problems: slow to talk and retrieve words
  • Struggles with reading, comprehension, and vocabulary
  • Hard time processing what they’ve heard, and keeping up with school

But this list is only a set of signs, not a diagnosis. Especially since many of these difficulties also appear in other conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder, experts like Bellis insist that accurate evaluation is crucial. “Only an audiologist,” she says, “has the special tools that are necessary” to diagnose APD.

And what then? In her book, Like Sound Through Water, Ben’s mother, Karen Foli, chronicled his successful treatment over three years of early elementary school. Working as a team, Ben’s parents, teacher, and audiology experts used a variety of approaches to help him fill in the blanks and catch up.

And where is Ben now? His mother reports that he is sixteen, thriving in high school and getting ready to drive. The child who once struggled to say words like “water,” “ice,” or “steam,” is now a nearly straight-A student. He dreams, in fact, of a career in chemical engineering.