ODU researcher shows noise impacts audiovisual cues for those with ADHD

“Fascinating.”

That’s how Anne Michalek described her research to a group of onlookers at Deadline Brewing Project Wednesday night.

About 25 people listened as she talked about her recent study — an analysis of adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and how they comprehend speech while hearing background noises and seeing audiovisual speech cues, like lip movements.

Michalek, an assistant professor in Old Dominion University’s communication disorders and special education department, found that images don’t help adults with ADHD as much as adults without ADHD when background noise is the loudest.

She presented the findings at the spring semester’s first Science Pub, an ODU series where the community can interact with researchers.

The study looked at 63 adults and how they process speech and noise, and was based on the Ease of Language Understanding theory, Michalek said.

Different environments require different levels of attention, Michalek said, like a classroom versus a noisy bar. To properly regulate our attention, we need to use a resource called working memory capacity, which holds the sound we hear while our system attaches that sound to meaning, she said.

Some study participants were previously diagnosed with ADHD while others weren’t. Those with ADHD stopped taking their medicine 12 to 24 hours before the experiment, Michalek said.

They listened to a sentence and repeated it back to the researchers, she said. They listened while looking at a visual cue — a face with moving lips — and listened again with no image.

In the background they heard noise played at six decibel levels.

“The noise that was introduced during this task was background babble,” Michalek said. “It was similar to what you would hear in a restaurant.”

With sound alone, people with ADHD performed similarly to the undiagnosed participants, Michalek said. When they listened to the sentence and looked at an image, they did worse than those without ADHD when the background was the loudest.

Michalek said this is contrary to the audiovisual benefit afforded to people without ADHD.

“The literature tells us that audiovisual speech cues provide up to a 40 percent increase in speech recognition,” she said.

Noise level was also a factor.

“When the noise was as loud as it could be, that’s when people with ADHD performed the worst,” she said.

But not all noise is bad for people with ADHD, she said. Some, like white noise, improves math skills for those diagnosed with ADHD.

Chase Hill, 22, was there Wednesday night. He said he can relate.

He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was younger. Noises like music or TV help him get things done, he said.

If there’s no noise, “I start to freak out and get overwhelmed,” he said. “If I have noise, I can work way more efficiently, get things done and I can focus a lot better.”

Michalek said it’s important to monitor the combination and presence of environmental noise and visual cues when those with ADHD are completing tasks. Teachers, for example, should have a good understanding of their students’ behaviors and weaknesses so they can make accommodations that suit them.

“It’s very easy to say ‘Just write it down,’ ‘Just provide a visual cue,’ or ‘Just make them watch you say it,’ ” she said. “That may not be true for everybody that has a diagnosis.”

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Publication: The Virginian-Pilot / January 31st, 2019
Photo Credit: Steve Earley

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