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Teri James Bellis
e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson
(March 2002)

Teri James Bellis, Ph.D., is a professor of audiology at the University of South Dakota, and a recognized authority on Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). Ironically, she herself became the victim of adult-onset APD as the result of head trauma suffered in a car accident. In When the Brain Can't Hear, Dr. Bellis provides an in depth but still very accessible discussion of the disorder. She covers alternatives in diagnosis and treatment, explains compensatory strategies and offers resources. But mainly she holds out hope, from personal experience that 'There can be a happy ending.' Here is more of what Teri Bellis has to say about APD, neuroplasticity and 'light in the darkness.'

Q: In When the Brain Can't Hear, you compare the current labeling of kids with APD to what went on previously with AD/HD. Is APD becoming the current fad in learning disabilities and aren't tests for APD more objective, with clearer results, than the somewhat subjective AD/HD assessment?

A: Actually, the answer to both questions is yes. I often refer to APD as the "AD/HD of the new millenium." By that, I mean that APD has become a popular label to apply automatically to any child with listening, learning, or communication difficulties. This has arisen because of the availability of lists of signs and symptoms of APD in the popular domain, symptoms that often mimic many other disorders, as well, combined with the somehow less threatening aura that surrounds the APD label - a label that often appears far less frightening than labels such as AD/HD. When a child (or adult) exhibits many of the symptoms on the list, the assumption is often made that APD is the cause, when that very often is not the case. On the other hand, there are objective tests that can and do diagnose APD, and that are absolutely critical in arriving at an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan. That's why I emphasize that - unlike with AD/HD - symptoms checklists cannot and should not be used to label children or adults with APD ... only a comprehensive diagnostic assessment by an audiologist can accomplish that goal.

Q: I was fascinated by the information on gender differences that influence APD onset in middle age and (for women) post-menopause. Do you think that if people understood this better, they might be a little more tolerant of their elders' and / or partner's difficulties in communication and socialization?

A: Absolutely. In fact, I really encourage cross-gender counseling in APD management for adults. I know that, in my own marriage, knowledge of the others' specific type of difficulty goes a long way toward allowing us to develop communicative strategies. On the other hand, of course, we do have our moments during which absolutely no excuse will suffice! :-)

Q: Research on brain plasticity holds out hope for all of us as we face the loss of intellectual abilities and communication skills through ageing. The field seems to be moving fast. Are there any predictions that you would care to make about its impact on our old age?

A: I believe that we are moving into an era in which we recognize that continual stimulation to the brain can help keep that critical organ in shape just as physical exercise helps to maintain muscle strength and agility. As such, I am currently planning studies that will investigate using some of the auditory and related therapy exercises that help to strengthen the way the two hemispheres of the brain interact with elderly adults so that any deterioration can be slowed or, even better, possibly avoided altogether.

Q: You must have gone through an incredibly painful time yourself after the car accident, and the subsequent difficulty in diagnosis. Did that change your own approach to assessment of those referred to you?

A: It certainly allowed us to revise our own model of APD to include those types that are based in the right hemisphere of the brain - an area we really hadn't considered before. It has also helped me be much more empathetic with my patients. Just recently, I sat with a gentleman who had had a right hemisphere stroke and was experiencing many of the same symptoms I, myself, have experienced. I held his hand as he poured out his heart to me, and asked me questions about my own experiences. It seemed to give him a great deal of comfort in knowing that others have taken a similar journey and that he could talk to me openly, without fear of judgment, and know that I truly understood where he was coming from and what he was going through.

Q: I was touched by your hope, mentioned in the book's preface, 'that it provides some ray of light ... in the darkness.' Do you think that there is hope in ongoing research for any significant breakthroughs in APD remediation?

A: Although I don't believe that there will ever be one single cure for APD (primarily because there are many types of APD, each of which calls for a different type of treatment), I think that the recent research into neuroplasticity is almost daily changing the way we view the brain and how it learns. As such, I think the potential for breakthroughs is immense, and imminent. I do hope that my words, my writing of this book, have provided at least an echo of that glimmer of light in the darkness. If I have touched one life - just one - with this book, it will all have been worth it.
Teri James Bellis has spent more than 15 years in the field of auditory neuroscience. Her writing has been featured in numerous medical and academic publications, including the Journal of Neuroscience. Dr. Bellis lives in South Dakota.
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