“Auditory Training: My Personal Experience And Thoughts”
For more information on Auditory Integration Training (A.I.T.), you may be interested in this site: www.berardaitwebsite.com.
Good evening. My name is James Williams. I have autism, and I am the beneficiary of Auditory Integration Training. I am also on a never-ending quest to learn more about the treatment that has helped me the way it has.
Sensitive hearing is a symptom of autism. This is one of the reasons why autistic individuals benefit from A.I.T. But cases of sensitive hearing also occur independently from autism.
Today, I’m here to talk about how AIT benefited me, briefly how AIT works, and what I have learned about this treatment.
In October of 2002 my father and I were at a party in rural California. We were celebrating the 40th birthday of Ann Boehlke, an independent film producer. Her husband, Mack Polhemus, is a film director, and my father and I had just completed the filming of minor roles in his upcoming movie. During the party Mack told me something I will always remember: “The reason why you had to stay put on the set when we were filming was because a microphone will pick up every sound and cannot filter out unwanted noises.”
“What do you mean?” I asked Mack.
“Well, right now at this party, you’re hearing my voice, but you’re filtering out his voice over there, and you’re filtering out that man’s voice over there, because you’re focusing on my voice. But a microphone can’t do that. It’s going to pick up everything based on how close the sound is to the microphone.”
Suddenly I understood something about sound sensitivities. Of course, Mack was talking about filmmaking. But he gave me an important analogy, because most sound sensitive ears work like the microphone. Our ears cannot filter out undesirable noises. They hear everything based on how close it is to us. But when the sound-sensitive ear tunes out nearby sounds to protect itself, it sometimes tunes out everything, no matter who is speaking or what is making the sound.
Okay. Now I want each and every one of you to consider the ramifications of what I just said. Imagine hearing everything that is going on inside a room without being able to tune it out despite your sincere and honest desire to focus on only sound or voice. Imagine hearing all the different hums and coughs, the buzzing of the heater or the ventilation system or the fluorescent lights inside this room right now, based on how close you are to those sounds. Imagine trying to concentrate on my voice while all these other sounds flood your ears and mind. Now imagine how well you could concentrate on my voice if those sounds were magnified three times as loud as they actually are, as is the case sometimes with someone who has sound sensitivities. I don’t think you could concentrate very well. Finally, imagine being so terrified of an unexpected sound that your nervous system is on alert at all times, and I doubt you could pay any attention to my speech. And in case you are wondering, getting shocked by a loud noise is like being electrocuted to a sound-sensitive person. That’s why sound-sensitive people become so rigid and fearful at the thought of a loud noise.
Now suppose you’re a sound-sensitive person sitting in this audience, and you want to listen to my speech. But the noises in the room become so annoying and terrifying that you start to tune them out. Soon you’re tuning out me as well. You don’t understand what I’m saying, and after you miss enough of it, you just give up and stop listening. You had no choice but to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and in fact, the noises in the room became so loud that, to your ears, it was entirely bathwater. Imagine a sound-sensitive child trying to concentrate in a noisy classroom full of paper shuffling and buzzing lights. It becomes more obvious why he or she can’t understand the teacher and quickly retreats into his or her own world, where everything is quiet. It also becomes clear why a sound-sensitive toddler fails to learn normal speech by listening to it. His personal goal is NOT to listen to it because of his sensitive hearing.
A.I.T. originally was developed by Dr. Guy Berard, a doctor who wanted to make a more efficient version of an existing treatment that had been created by Dr. Alfred Tomatis. Once perfected, it was adapted to become a treatment for sound sensitivities. And then, when a particular child who received A.I.T. had autism as well as sound sensitivities, it not only treated his hearing issues but treated his autism as well. But hearing is only one symptom that parents who give their kids A.I.T. are looking to treat. While the focus is on the hearing, parents give this treatment to their sound-sensitive kids to help them with language, social skills, and sensory issues. In fact, sound sensitivities sometimes recur even after A.I.T. initially treated them.
Now I’d like to present a profile of myself at the age of three. I’m basically a loner, isolating myself from other people, particularly other children. I’m certainly not speaking in front of parent support groups. And also, I’m not living in the Chicago metropolitan area. I’m living in Manhattan.
At the age of three, my language is based on two things: echoing other people and decoding printed words. I was able to read words very well despite the fact I couldn’t understand much of what I read. But ask me to say my name, or to say hello, and I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. And also, I have a lot of trouble with pronouns. I simply can’t figure out pronouns. Because of the echo method of language acquisition, I use “you” for “I,” and “yours” for “mine.” After all, Mom just referred to me as a “you.” In frustration I resort to saying “James” and other names because I can not understand why “I” am “I” when I say something about myself but not when someone else replies back to me.
At the age of three, I’m also a very obsessive individual. One of my obsessions is with lollipops. Lollipops of all kinds. Big ones, small ones, medium-sized ones. Every day my mother and I have to go out into the streets of Manhattan to buy two lollipops, one for each hand. And then I meticulously look at every one in the whole store to find the lollipops to buy. But I hardly ever eat those lollipops unless I am really hungry. No. I save them. I save them by putting them on a table that my mom calls “my candy table.” All my lollipops become stuck and fused together on that table, where they sit for over a year until we move to Northbrook, Illinois.
At the age of three, I’m also obsessed with recessed light fixtures. In the Columbia University Law School, there are two gigantic escalators with recessed ceiling lights above it. My mom and I go up and down on those escalators while I stare transfixed at the lights, calling “on” if the light works or “off” if the bulb has burned out. We do this for hours.
At the age of three, I also have this obsession with music. I listen to the same Raffi tapes over and over. On the playground, my mother attaches the tape player to the stroller or puts it under my swing. If the tape isn’t playing, I’m falling apart. One day when the tape player breaks, my mother has to sing me my favorite song as we stroll down Broadway. It is a Raffi song called Joshua Giraffe. She goofs up the words half the time, and I am forced to correct her over and over again. One day a total stranger comes up to her and says, “I know you! You’re that woman who walks down Broadway singing to her kid.”
At the same time, I’m normal in certain areas at the age of three. In my house, with my family, I seem fine. But take me to a public place that isn’t familiar or safe or enclosed (like the narrow confines of an escalator), and I’m screaming and crying and having a fit. In fact, the only way I stop screaming is if I am taken home. Or sometimes I’m playing frozen. In my stroller, all the noises of Manhattan are surrounding me and I sit unmoving and not responding, as if I’m dead. But there’s one place where I cause trouble the most—a restaurant. There’s something about restaurants that I can’t stand.
So now let’s get back to the microphone theory--the theory that the sound sensitive ear can’t tune anything out unless it tunes out everything, hears everything based on how close it is, and hears everything much louder than it really is. How does that correlate to the other symptoms of autism—language impairment, inability to behave in public places, and the need to listen to music everywhere I went?
The answer lies in what I would call a “ripple” effect. That saying is typically used in discussions about economics, but it’s relevant here.
A “ripple” effect is when something small effects numerous things and that causes more things to get affected, just as a ripple in water gets bigger and bigger.
Consider. All the words the brain knows are acquired from an external input—either by someone teaching us what that word means, or by reading it off a book, or the Internet. When my youngest sister was three years old, she called herself a “pooky” because my mother would call her “pooky” as a nickname. Her brain processed that as meaning a “child” so at age three, she would say “I’m a pooky,” and she thought that all small beings were pookies as well. What started out as a simple nickname became an official word, which became generalized to the human race. Once when I called her a little person, she got furious. “I’m a pooky,” she said. I’ll be a person when I get bigger.”
Let me interrupt to state that we’re now going to do a demonstration that is unfriendly to those with sensitive hearing. If you have sensory issues, please close your ears, shut your eyes, or leave the room.
But if we didn’t call her a “pooky,” there is no way in the world she would have identified herself as “pooky.” Her ears heard that. Now let’s imagine you have a child with a sound sensitivity at the age of two. Whenever he hears anyone speak, he’s terrified. In fact, the sound of the world is just terrifying to him.
So he has to spend his time tuning everything out. Do you now understand what happens? Because he doesn’t hear people talking and he doesn’t hear conversation, his language centers don’t get the stimulation that they need in order to learn language. Thus, his language becomes impaired because of his hearing. See how the two are related?
[Stop fire alarm.]
All right, I’m going to interrupt here for some obvious reasons. None of us have to leave the building. The fire alarm was being played by my computer. The sound originally comes from a website called The Schumin Web. We’ve just had the simulation of a fire drill. If you are sound-sensitive, you may open your ears now, but we will be sounding the alarm again, so I will warn you of when it is going to happen.
The fire drill is a mandated routine event in most, if not all, of our elementary, junior high, and high schools. While laws regarding fire drills do differ between states, most, if not all, of the 50 states in the U.S. require that schools conduct fire drills. The staff might know about them, and some schools inform their kids prior to a drill, but in other situations, the fire alarm suddenly pierces the ears of the students. And this sound, as well as the anticipation of this sound terrifies the souls of sound-sensitive individuals everywhere.
A.I.T. practitioner Sharon Hurst has said that although the Kinetron can alter the frequencies from 125 Hz to 8 Khz, most of the kids she gives A.I.T. to are sensitive to noises between the 1 and 8 Khz range.
Before we sound the fire alarm again, I’m going to show you something I came up with after spending nights listening to music on Windows Media Player 9. I’ve discovered that, by using Windows Media Player 9, it’s possible to chart how high or low a song or a sound is on certain frequencies. This Windows Media Player 9 has certain visualizations that you can turn on that are generated when a sound file is playing. One of those visualizations is called “Fire Storm” in the “Bars and Waves” section. This visualization allows the viewer to see these frequencies in the form of sound waves, which have the similar shape of an audiogram. These numbers up here represent numbers of frequencies measured in Hz, with the higher numbers representing higher frequencies and the lower numbers representing lower frequencies. And the loudness of the sound is represented by how high or low the wave is.
We’re now going to see exactly what frequencies that fire alarm sound is on.
Frequencies (Measured in Hertz)
Fire Alarm Frequency Graph
Now let’s take a look at this diagram and see what it shows. You see anything interesting? It starts here, goes down a little bit, and then there’s a peak at 4Khz. Also, the fire alarm doesn’t even play between 31 and 100 Hz—what’s being heard there is background noise. What this tells us is that the fire alarm sounds a lot higher at 4Khz then another frequencies. Now let’s remember what Sharon said about most kids having sensitive hearing between the 1-8 Khz range. And I’ll also add the fact that Sharon also has said that 4Khz is the frequency damaged the most in ears of those who listen to loud hard rock music or are exposed to loud noises frequently. When all of this information is stated together, isn’t it any wonder this sound terrifies an autistic child?
Now I am going to repeat what I said before the first fire alarm was sounded, without the terror of the alarm.
Do you now understand what happens? Because he doesn’t hear people talking and he doesn’t hear conversation, his language centers don’t get the stimulation that they need in order to learn language. Thus, his language becomes impaired because of his hearing. See how the two are related?
All right, I’ve just said what I said before without the fire alarm going off. Now, let’s say I gave the whole speech while that buzzing was going on in the background. Would you be able to concentrate on what I was saying then? I don’t think so. Well, that’s what it’s like for a sound-sensitive person. There’s some noise going off in the background that they can’t stand, and thus they’re determined to block everything out, and therefore lose the auditory stimulation the brain needs to process language.
But for the sound-sensitive individuals who were in this audience, the damage would have been done. A sound-sensitive child who is shocked once by this in school might be terrified every minute he’s setting in his desk for the rest of the school year, shivering in his shoes, of the alarm because he doesn’t know when it’s going to go off again.
I assure you now, in this speech, that if that sound terrified you, you don’t need to be terrified anymore. I’m not sounding the alarm again.
Now let’s get back to myself. I was a terror in public places at the age of three. But one place in particular I was a horror in was the restaurant. Why the restaurant? First, the dinner table is one of those autistic cataclysms where every single sense causes trouble. But I can just remember hating them. I can remember having to leave. I can remember this need to go home. But why? Everything. Not just the sound. Not just the smell. Just the overwhelming environment. So my mother and father would have to take turns eating. My mother would walk me outside while my father ate and vice-versa. But the hearing was indeed a factor. Because I cannot stand the noise of the restaurant, I cannot attend a restaurant without going crazy.
Now let’s get back to public places in general. The environment of them was overwhelming. I couldn’t stand them. Can you see how this causes more ripples? Public places are where we typically have social interactions. But in this case, the child cannot stand public places due to the hearing, and loses that essential development necessary to learn social skills.
So then, why was I obsessed with music? That’s also related to hearing. Music was a safe sound. It wasn’t going to just shock me. I knew the words to the song. I knew when something was coming. It was also a tool to block out the “dangerous” sounds. If I heard the music, I wouldn’t have to hear some other sound that might shock me. But as a result, I drove my mother crazy, and I drove my father crazy, to the point where he got so angry that he had to listen to the same tape over and over again in the car that he took the tape and threw it out the window.
And why did I have a hard time learning language? Probably it’s because speech was too loud for me, and my brain tried its best to tune it out as much as possible. The ear instinctively tries to block out sounds that bothers it, or it adapts by learning to block out half the sound.
So while we wonder what’s going on when I’m four we learn that there’s this new experimental therapy out there. It’s called Auditory Integration Training. A woman named Annabel Stehli has written a best-selling book about how A.I.T. helped her autistic daughter. All members of the A.I.T. community are indebted to Stehli in some way.
It’s now the spring of 1993, and I am four years old. My family and I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area in the summer of 1992. Now that we live in the Chicago area, we find a local practitioner. Then I take an audiogram and it reveals that I can hear at –10 decibels. A normal person typically stops being able to hear things at 10 decibels.
Then my mother hears other success stories of individuals with autism and hyperlexia that were benefited by A.I.T. And so, we decide to go ahead and try it.
One of the principles behind A.I.T. can be summarized like this: My uncle and aunt moved into a neighborhood right next to a railroad. Every morning the same train came down the track. Initially, it woke my uncle up. But after a few months, his hearing adjusted and the train no longer woke him up. But here’s the key aspect—he didn’t have to hear that train every minute in order for his hearing to adapt. His ears only heard that train in the morning, but that was enough for him to eventually adjust. That’s why AIT can work even though it’s only done for 1-hour a day during a period of 10 days.
In, A.I.T. the frequencies in music between 125 and 8Khz are filtered and amplified for short periods of time and then softened, up and down, up and down on a random basis. The person is asked to have an audiogram before the treatment in order to determine at what decibel level the person hears each tested frequency. From this audiogram, the practitioner will look for peaks in the audiogram, and determine whether or not manual filters will be set. If you don’t understand what a “peak” is, remember what the frequency chart for the fire alarm showed.
Now, I am going to give you an analysis of how certain sounds operate on sound frequencies. I’m going to do it by booting back up my animated frequency meter.
As I showed you with the fire alarm, everything we hear, whether it’s low or high, or it’s music or sound, our ears hear on specific frequencies. Thus, people who have sensitive hearing, or are going deaf but are not entirely deaf, typically have specific sound frequencies that they are sensitive to or have trouble hearing compared to other sound frequencies. If a person is sensitive to 2KHz but not sensitive to 500Hz, any sound on 2KHz will bother them more than a sound on 500Hz, even if that sound is equally loud.
By playing numerous songs, sounds, and speech through my animated frequency meter, I’ve also noticed that there are distinct patterns that determine what frequency a specific tone, sound, or voice is on. I’m going to show you those patterns right now. When you hear the sounds or music, you will be able to see what frequency these sounds are on, and how they change as the sounds change, and you can refer to the numbers here to tell you what frequency it is.
First, you will hear a progression of computer-generated tones from a MIDI file.
Now notice what’s going on as the tones get higher. The tones play on higher frequencies as their pitch changes. And the range of frequencies each tone is playing on is getting smaller.
[Wait until tones end.]
This establishes one rule—the frequency of a tone is determined almost entirely by it’s pitch.
But speech is different. Speech is not determined entirely by pitch. Rather, it is determined by what you are saying. Different sounds are on different frequencies.
To illustrate the differences and similarities in pitch and sounds regarding speech, you’re now going to hear a conversation between two people speaking.
Now notice what we saw. Like the tones, we saw some differences between the high and low voices. The male voice was on some lower frequencies than the male voice. But unlike the tones, there was much more overlapping between the voices. And finally, certain letter sounds always played on the same frequencies, regardless of their pitch. Did you notice that the “s” and “ch” sounds were always between 4 and 8Khz?
Finally, I’m now going to play you a sample of music. Music is a very diverse medium since it typically plays on a lot of frequencies. However, parts of the music typically are on specific frequencies compared to other parts. In instrumental pieces, the percussion is on a different frequency, then say, the violin or the horn or the piano.
I’m now going to play you a song.
Did you notice something? When the piano started playing, the pitch determined what frequencies were being heard. There were peaks where the notes played. Then the singer began to sing. He sang between 500 and 4Khz. But notice when he sang “circus” and “stars.” Suddenly, there was sudden activity going on at 8Khz. This confirms what we saw before. The lower notes played between 31-250 Hz, whereas the higher notes played between 500-4Khz, intermingling with his voice. But no singing overlapped with the lower notes. Finally, even though the music consisted of singing and music, every frequency between 31 and 4Khz was covered, with periodic activity at 8Khz.
This also explains why so many sound-sensitive children, like myself, enjoy listening to music. In my case, from the age of two to the age of four, I had to listen to music everywhere I went or else I had a fit. Since music typically plays on each frequency, it therefore can “block every other sound out.” Would you be able to listen to anything I said if I gave this speech with that music playing in the back?
So why is this relevant to A.I.T? Well, that’s because even though the tones, speech, and music all differed in content, each sound correlated to a specific frequency from the same range of frequencies. And those who have sensitive hearing typically have greater sensitivities on some frequencies than others. Most children with sensitive hearing typically are more sensitive to the higher frequencies. In A.I.T., music, specifically music like that song that played on every frequency, the frequencies are moved rapidly up and down randomly and unpredictably, with specific frequencies filtered based on which frequencies we are trying to desensitize in the child’s ears.
[NOTE: Pictures comparing the frequencies of the songs played during the Kinetron frequency analysis can be viewed here.]
You’re now going to hear another song. When you listen to it, try to notice the patterns that I’ve just mentioned with the other song.
Now you’re going to hear that same song again, except this time you’re going to hear it the way someone taking A.I.T. would. But you not only get to hear the modulations that occur—you’re going to be able to see them as well.
Now notice the differences here, especially between 2 and 10Khz. Notice how suddenly the waves get higher and then lower again. This is how the modulation works. Also notice how the lower frequencies, from 125 to 2Khz, are being modulated as well. Notice how each frequency in the music is raised and lowered, up and down, up and down. The modulation, as you can also see, is random and unpredictable. For children with unreliable audiograms, manual filters are not set. Therefore, they will necessarily be subjected to some of the frequencies they are sensitive to.
To many people, especially those who hear it for the first time, this music is very difficult to listen to. It is too loud, and very annoying. I know it bothered me at first. But my hearing has been able to adapt, especially when I have had to listen to numerous modulated songs in order to create these visualizations.
But the ears are forced to listen to the music through the headphones. Since the loud parts take place in such a short time, the ears do not know when to close up—and don’t.
And finally, you’re going to hear the same song, except now you will be hearing individualized Kinetron music—that is, music played through the Kinetron except with two manual filters set--2 and 8KhZ. When music is played through the Kinetron—there’s a random way of playing it—modulation with all frequencies at normal volume. But you can also individualize it. You can soften various frequencies between 750 and 8Khz by approximately 40 decibels.
You’re now going to hear the same song again, except 2 and 8Khz will be softened by 40 decibels.
Now notice the differences here. Since 2 and 8Khz have been softened, do you see the V-shaped valleys at 2 and 8Khz?
Next you’re going to see diagrams of sound wave layouts of this music--that is, waves that record each movement in music based on volume. I’m going to now boot up the program that shows these layouts. These pictures were created by the software “Advanced Sound Recorder,”
Music Waves: Regular Music (Top), Random Kinetron Music (Bottom)
Now, let’s take a look here. On the top, we see the waves of a song as it would be heard regularly. The red waves represent the left ear, and the blue waves represent the right. On the bottom, we see the waves of a song as it is played through the Kinetron with no frequencies dampened. Each of these peaks and lines here represent the modulations in the song, recorded here as sudden “loud” parts of the music.
It should be reminded that the peaks in this diagram do not represent frequencies. Rather, they are measuring the volume of the music.
And, folks, that’s it. That’s the end of my multimedia presentation. Now I’m going to go back to my speech.
So let’s get back to my story in 1993. I’ve started my session of A.I.T., and it’s now lunchtime on Day 2. I have seen the sign next door that says SHONEY’S RESTAURANT, and I want to go there because of the word “Restaurant,” which is in a song I like. I point to SHONEY’S as the place I want to eat lunch.
This strikes terror in my mother’s heart. She knows how horrible I have been in restaurants. But like many mothers whose kids are undergoing A.I.T., she’s afraid to deny me anything for fear I’ll have a meltdown and refuse to cooperate in the next session. So she takes me to Shoney’s, terrified about what I’m going to do.
But then magic happens. I am not causing trouble at all. I actually sit down and act like a normal child, totally oblivious to the fact that a few months ago I would be having a fit at a restaurant. My mother is even able to go to the salad bar and leave me unattended. I sit there calmly folding my napkin. She goes into shock.
And I have had only three half-hour sessions of A.I.T.
So we continue taking A.I.T. and then something else happens. I start talking. I can remember it clearly—not being able to talk and now suddenly being able to talk. And feeling very happy about it. And not understanding why my mother is making such a big deal about it.
At the end of my ten-day session of AIT, both Sharon and my mother notice that I have an increased ability to speak normally. I can say more things, and my tone of voice is more normal.
After AIT corrects sound sensitivities, imagine the ripple that takes place within the sound-sensitive child.
The child no longer has to tune out the noises around him. Thus, his speech centers can take in and process language instead of blocking it, and that is why language is boosted.
The child no longer has to fear loud noises in public places. Thus, he can receive the positive social experiences he needs to become a social being.
Consider the following statement made by Georgiana Stehli after having A.I.T., written in the book The Sound of A Miracle, written by Annabel Stehli: “Mom, I’d like to go out in the rain,” she says. “Why do you want to do that?” Annabel asks.
Georgie replies, “Because the rain doesn’t sound like a machine-gun anymore.”
Isn’t that just a staggering thought for a normal person? That rain can sound like a machine gun. That just shows you how real these sensitivities are. How much greater the hearing capabilities of sound-sensitive children are. How these sensitivities can be a handicap when doing anything in our world except perhaps, being a spy.
Now I must end by stating the following: This treatment is not for all. No treatment for autism will help every sound-sensitive person. You have to try every option. My mother gave me A.I.T. She also gave me speech therapy. Numerous kinds of physical therapy. She gave me biofeedback. And she never decided not to pursue a treatment based on an expert’s claim that it had no basis in science. Science does not condemn something that is innovative; it supports it. And you’ve got nothing to lose. Try this. Try everything. That’s what my mother did. And if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be up here speaking to you.
Sources of Sound Clips and Diagrams:
Sound, music, and Kinetron frequency charts - Created with the use of Microsoft Paint, Windows Media Player, and Advanced Sound Recorder v6.0.
Fire Alarm Sound Clip – The Wheelock AS-42-110 Fire Alarm, originally from the website The Schumin Web. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Song 1: “Just Read A Book” – Written and performed by Bill Vaanaanen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Song 2: “Loch Lomond” – Traditional; performed by Ann Boehlke. To enhance the A.I.T. modulation effects that were used with this song, the speed and pitch of the song was altered. The original version of this song can be heard here. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
The music tones were created with the use of the software Cakewalk Music Creator.
Conversation -- From the 2006 independent movie My Bad Dad, written and directed by Mack Polhemus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.