If you suspect your child is having hearing difficulties, they can undergo a series of aural tests. If their responses fall outside the normal range, they can be diagnosed with an Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) and receive treatment. But a significant proportion of the children who are tested respond normally.

“Audiologists and the GPs don’t have anything they can say to these parents other than ‘there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them,’” said Simon Carlile, associate professor in Physiology at Sydney University.

“But of course, the parents and teachers and the children themselves know there is a problem. It’s just there wasn’t a test available that could discriminate what that problem might be.”

In a joint project from Sydney University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory and Macquarie University’s Audiology Section, researchers have discovered a group of children who are unable to rapidly switch their attention from one source of sound to another.

These children have otherwise normal hearing sensitivity, but struggle to listen in environments where many people are talking at once – for example, in a classroom.

“When people are having an active conversation . . . kids with this inability to rapidly switch their attention are missing the first bit of what the next person is saying,” Professor Carlile said. “It makes it really hard for them to follow the conversation. After failing to do that for a bit they basically drop out and stop trying to listen.”

Currently, two thirds of the children presenting at Macquarie University’s audiology clinic are not diagnosed with an APD. Researchers are now working to develop a test that audiologists and GPs can use to diagnose children who struggle to switch their aural attention.

From there, research will focus on determining how the disorder can be treated effectively. In the meantime, Professor Carlile is encouraging parents to get their child assessed at the Macquarie University clinic.

“Dealing with communication issues early on in the child’s school life is really important,” he said. “You can have some pretty negative downstream effects if the kid is missing out on fundamental learning in language and basic schooling because they have a hearing problem.”