Auditory Sequential Processing

Auditory Sequential Processing Skills
Digit Spans

Improved digit spans are a key to improving functional intelligence. The terms “sequential processing,” “sequencing,” and “digit spans” are all referring to the same mental ability. The excerpts here are from the Einstein Syndrome list as parents of children with Down syndrome come to grips with this concept.

What Are They? Importance Evaluating Increasing

What Are Digit Spans and Sequencing?

Kay explains:

What we are concerned about is short term memory—auditory processing. It is a measure of how many pieces the individual takes into short term memory, (auditorily or visually), and manipulates mentally. This affects maturity level, understanding what is being said, following directions, reading using phonics.

A child that is one year old should process 1 item, an average two year old will process 2 items, three year old 3, four year old 4…up to about 6 to 7 for most adults. For adults, if it is 10 or better, we consider the individual very intelligent. If an individual processes at the 5 to 6 level, they only get part of our conversation, and we would judge them as being a little spacey.

Significantly, if the individual only processes 1, 2, or sometimes 3, he can be labeled “retarded” or mentally handicapped. It is very important to understand that the fact that an individual can only process 2 items has nothing to do with the potential or intelligence of the individual. But the world will call that individual retarded simply because he can’t process what is going on around him.

Well, since we have such an important thing going on here—the ability to process in short term—let’s jump all over this and try to improve it on purpose…and that’s exactly what we do.

Importance of Digit Spans

Miriam writes:

If your child is not at least at an auditory processing level of two, then potty training is really, really hard. Three is much better for potty training success.

On reading…if you teach using phonics it requires an auditory digit span of 5-6 because of the need to process 3-4 sounds per word plus remember the rules. If we start phonics before that, then they will just get frustrated.

Linda Kane’s experience:

I remember when Scott started getting sixes right. It was absolutely a changing point in his life. Without reaching a six digit span, he would never be enjoying his pretty independent (although semi-independent) lifestyle.

Keep the motivation and rewards going. WHATEVER IT TAKES!!! I believe seven is the mark where the opportunity for independence begins.


Margaret asks:I have a question about pretend play. Sean (3 1/2, Down Syndrome) is just starting to do this—is this way behind or normal for kids with Down Syndrome?

Miriam delightedly responds:

This is wonderful! As far as when this is developmentally “normal” I think that there is a whole spectrum of this. Kids start just mimicking everything they see adults doing (like clapping hands, walking, smiling…), they begin to play with “toys” the way they see us playing with our “toys” because they are mimicking us. When you are cooking, they want a bowl and spoon to “cook” too. When this officially becomes “pretend play,” I don’t know.

I think the complexity of their play follows their auditory and visual processing skills. And the higher their auditory and visual sequencing abilities, the more complex their thinking (and play) becomes. You will probably get sick of hearing me harping on digit spans, but I think all this comes down to digit span.


From the Brain Builder manual, “What Brain Builder Does, and Why?” by Bob Doman:

If sequential processing capacity is limited, it’s a little like not having enough RAM in your computer. Some things work just fine. Others work, but s-l-o-w-l-y, or more crudely. And certain things become impossible—resulting in frustration.

[The result of increasing processing] is less confusion and better communication. You’ll have less need to reread information or hear it repeated. You’ll enjoy the ability to respond faster and more accurately to real-life or academic problems.

Evaluating Short Term Memory

Jo says:

Andrew can do a two step command and he talks mainly in 2 to 4 word sentences with a few 5 word sentences thrown in. What are some ways I can figure out where he is?

Kay explains:

One way to test the ability to hold things in short term memory is to use a digit span test. If I say a sequence of numbers to you about 1 and 1 seconds apart, in a monotone, for instance, 7-3-9-2 and you can say them back to me in that order, then you can do a digit span of 4.

But this is true for anything you take into short term memory and immediately output. If you give a child directions like “touch your head and your nose” and that child can do 2 steps and not 3 steps, then we put that child’s auditory processing level at 2 and work at 2 to 3 to get the child to the next level.

I have actually backed away from using digits so much, especially with auditory processing. What I find is that children with auditory processing problems usually develop very good visual processing. Then, when we give that child auditory numbers, he learns to visualize them, writing them on the “board of his mind,” and we don’t truly work on auditory processing.

An extreme of this is Cathy Steere’s son who she wrote about in her book Too Wise to be Mistaken, Too Good to be Unkind, who can do 15 now visually. (Drew used to be autistic) When she tested his auditory function in a way that he couldn’t visualize the sequence, he could only do 5! She thought he was up to 8 or 9.

To test visual processing, just hold a card up with a sequence of numbers or pictures on it, have the child look at it for three seconds, hide it and then have the child repeat from left to right what was there.

A mom writes:

How do you test auditory function so they can’t visualize the sequence?

Kay Ness responds:

To test auditory function when we were sure the children were visualizing, one of my clever colleagues came up with a “conceptual word list”—a list of words that you cannot visualize…easily. Articles: the, to, for. Words like: love, glory, turn, much, etc. Very interesting what we are finding. And we are getting real progress in auditory processing with some of those high visualizers that we weren’t getting before.


Barbara writes:

I tried the digit spans with Mark when he was about nine or ten when I first heard of it. He might have been a little younger, I don’t remember for sure. (He’s twelve now.) He repeated 7 numbers back to me the first time. I was very surprised and tried to repeat it. But ever since that day he won’t do it and says it’s “stupid.” Maybe it was just a one-time thing and he isn’t able to do it all the time. I don’t know. Is this possible? (seems like it would be—sometimes I remember things very well, and sometimes not)

My question is: how could he do the 7 numbers on his first try?

Kay Ness responds:

You raise some excellent points and you are wonderfully observant of your son. Digit spans with numbers is very boring. Is there a little stubbornness in this Mr. Mark by any chance? Also, it could be a one-time thing…he could have visualized them and then otherwise, it is too hard for him…or associated it with a phone number or something? I don’t know. You can casually test him in other ways. But you can see how important raising processing levels is!

Increasing Processing Levels

Judy writes:

My son (11, Down Syndrome) has been on a NACD program for three years. He started out at digit span of 2, quickly moved to 3 and has been there ever since. We cannot budge him. He occasionally gets a 4, but it is really a struggle for him. I have been wondering if there are kids who top out at a certain level and never improve? Could it be a function of his brain being capable of so much and no more? We haven’t really tried too hard to work on it with other stimuli (except in terms of expecting him to speak in longer sentences), so that could be a factor. I also feel that he sort of turns off after a certain amount of info because he knows it will be difficult for him. Any ideas would be appreciated!

Kay Ness encourages:

Some children get stuck at a certain point and it seems like they’ll never move forward then…something clicks. When stuck, check intensity and how bored the child is with a particular exercise. Numbers get very boring unless parents get very clever. That’s why I add words, games, etc.

Also, check ears, hearing. Lots of language, persistence, prayer and constant re-evaluation of how things are working. Let us know how things go.

Miriam writes:

Mary’s auditory processing stalled at a digit span of 4 for two years, (actually getting to 5 previously and regressing and getting stuck at 4). Since we treated her thyroid, her auditory digit span has increased to 6.

Update: A number of children with Down syndrome are showing breakthroughs after beginning supplementation with gingko biloba. Lots of information at the Changing Minds Foundation, plus some impressive video evidence.


Kay Ness suggests:

With a very young child, if he is doing one step, I love Dr. MacDonald’s way of matching the child and then showing the child the next step—getting him to 2. Once the child is doing 2, start showing him the next step to 3. You can do this in so many ways: adding a word to phrases (Daddy’s car, dog runs, etc.), learning body parts: touch nose, head, ears (3 sequence). Pick up the socks, the pencil, the card…. I went to the store and bought: meat, apples, read, etc.

Make it games not just numbers, because the numbers are very boring after a while unless you can get the child in a competitive mode…competing against himself…very difficult.

Barbara chimes in:

He calls it progressive matching. If the child makes a gesture or sign, you do it then make a sound or give them one word. If the child says one word, you say one or two words. Then work your way up to sentences and conversations, always doing just a little more than what the child can do. This makes it easier for them to imitate or at least try to imitate what we say. (Our long sentences are too difficult in the beginning stages of speech.) This doesn’t have to be done all the time, but doing it often is very helpful, I found.

Miriam shares:

Mary is now at an auditory sequence of 4-5. She is six years old. We have worked about a year on each increase in her sequencing abilities. This does not come overnight. When Mary was beginning to use words we began to work on stretching those to two word phrases. Whenever she said a word, we would turn it into a phrase. (This takes place throughout the day, not during a designated “teaching” time.) I asked her Sunday School teacher and other adults in her life to do the same. If Mary said “paper,” we said “color paper” (which was what she was actually thinking, standing there with a crayon in her hand). If she said “drink” we said “drink juice.” It became second nature to convert her ideas into a two word phrase for her to hear. Input. Then one memorable day she said “eat”, climbed into her highchair, said “pancake” and after much prodding, and several tries, with her saying “eat, eat” or “pancake, pancake”, she put the words together: EAT PANCAKE!!! A month or so later it was commonplace for her to use two word phrases. Then we started the same process with three words.

I recommend the First Impressions video Opposites for work on couplets.

Kay Ness agrees with Miriam:

Turning a single word into a couplet in the context of how you are interacting with the child is very helpful….very much what Dr. MacDonald advocates. Showing the child the next step with a particular word: baby (for doll), baby sleeps (put the doll to bed), etc. Juice—juice cold, drink juice, etc. He did a workshop in Cincinnati that I attended. There is a video tape of this seminar which is six hours long and quite helpful. His methods are much more effective with many children than simply demanding language. It has been especially helpful with the more sensory children.


Barbara relates:

Now I’ll just tell everyone something I have done with him that I think helps auditory processing and memory—bedtime stories (or daytime stories too!). I don’t do this much anymore because he is older, but he still sometimes asks me to. The stories were always ones I made up and became more and more detailed and complicated as he grew up. The room was always dark because I wanted him to go to sleep (which he always did) so there were no pictures to look at. He had to listen carefully to catch the story. I used his favorite characters from movies and books. For example, Peter Pan flew to the Hundred Acre Wood and played baseball with Pooh and his friends. Or Clifford the Big Red Dog went to visit Curious George the monkey and they went to see the 101 Dalmatians. Then they all had some adventures. Stories like that. Mark loved them. Then the next night I would say, “I forgot what last night’s story was. Do you remember?” He always remembered better than I did. He can still tell me about stories I told him years ago and wants me to retell them.

Maybe some of you would like to try this idea. I think giving our children high-interest subjects like this gives them auditory processing and memory practice in a more pleasant way than digit spans.

Kay Ness again:

The way we raised processing levels in the old days was by doing processing —listening to speeches and sermons, talking to each other, engaging in conversations and discussions and debates, listening to debates, reading a lot for learning and entertainment. Go back and look at the sermons of 200 years ago. We couldn’t process those today. I imagine the average digit spans of our forefathers was 12 or so.

Anyway, I love the Charlotte Mason narration activities—making the children listen and respond. We use this on programs a lot as a supplement to doing digits. I use words, games, etc. Listening to books on tape into the dominant ear—right for right-handed, left for left-handed, helps a lot. There is some supposed controversy about whether left-handed people should be left eared but with hundreds of lefties on our caseload, we can say with good authority that this is the most efficient model for long-term memory.

Barbara decides:

I think I’ll stick with stories and word games to expand Mark’s processing and memory. I’m happy to see that you recommend this too, and not just the digit spans. It seems that since humans talk with words and not in numbers, that is the way to go. (Only my opinion, of course, but it seems more natural to me) We read a lot together and discuss what we read too. I think this is helpful.


Nelda writes:

For some time now, Karissa has been getting harder and harder to motivate to do digit spans. She is just “tuning me out,” and refuses to do it.

Miriam suggests:

Here are some ideas for auditory processing. I am assuming that you are working on 4s.

1) Ask her to get a shirt, shorts, underpants and a hat for her younger sister. As she is working, keep going over the list, asking her to remember.

2) Ask her to get the ketchup, mustard, salt, and napkins for the table. As she is working, keep going over the list asking her to remember. As you carry on your conversations, say things in fours.

3) Read to her. Lots and lots of stories and books. You know how all those studies about smart kids show that kids who were read to end up smarter? And they always say how important it is to read to your kid? I am convinced that the reason those kids are smarter is that all that listening to books results in a higher level of auditory processing. Talk about the stories you read to “translate” them to her lower processing level, and then also read them at the higher level on which they were written.

4) Watch Blue’s Clues. The main stuff in that show is in groups of three. I think the processing level is at 3-4-5.

5) If she gets a 4 right she gets to go to the park.

6) Whenever she is highly motivated to do something, make getting a 4 right the ticket to getting permission. For example, Mary is now working on 5s. She loves to practice riding her bike and when she asks for permission to go and practice I tell her that she may if she gets four 5s right. Intensity is high, then. If she wants to watch a certain video, she needs to get a 5 right to proceed.


A mom asks:

What are reverse auditory digits? And what are auditory objects?

Miriam explains:

Reverse auditory digits work like this. You say 7 – 3 – 2 – 5 – 1 and your child tries to repeat back 1 – 5 – 2 – 3 – 7. Auditory objects substitutes an object for the digit like this: cow, pig, tree, house, cat. For auditory object sequences the child tries to repeat the sequence. For reverse objects, the child reverses the list of words.