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Tomatis Therapy for Children with Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, Speech Delay and ADHD

by Ella Williams(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 148 - June 2008

“A child who does not concentrate, who is slow to learn language, or has behavioural problems, has suppressed or limited his desire for listening.”

                                                                    – Alfred A Tomatis

In two previous articles for Positive Health (Issues 70 and 86), I provided a general introduction to the Tomatis Listening Therapy and, in particular, the benefits to adults.

This article covers the application of the therapy in respect of children with learning disabilities. The therapy is perhaps more known for its educational benefits than anything else. For more background information, and a description of the course, please refer to the previous articles.

Baby J
Baby J


Hearing and Listening – and Testing

There is an essential and profound difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is the passive reception of sound. It is indiscriminate and arbitrary. Listening, on the other hand, is the focused response to particular sounds. It is discriminating and tunes in on particular sounds. Listening involves will; it is the fundamental desire to communicate with the world around us.

During a conventional hearing test, sensitivity to loud noises or overly acute perception is not registered. A hearing test analyzes the ability of the ears to respond to stimuli in isolation. It assesses response to individual sound frequencies.[1] A listening test will go further than this, and analyze not just the sounds as they are in separation from each other, but in relationship with other frequencies around them. There is a whole range of frequencies that need to be differentiated successfully in order to decipher sounds and interpret them.

Tuning Out

‘The human ear is the first organ to develop,[2] and from 4½ months before birth the ears of a child are fully functional. It is now generally accepted that a child hears in the womb, and that it already recognizes and indeed listens for its mother’s voice before and after birth. Listening is our birthright. People tune out from certain frequencies through a variety of stresses, anxiety and negative experiences that they associate with those frequencies. Sometimes ear, nose and throat problems are the cause. Sometimes it may be a difficult birth. The stresses may be physical or emotional. It is important to realize that tuning out is not anybody’s fault. It is something that we all do to some extent. The ideal listening pattern is one that analyzes the sounds in an ordered fashion. The sounds between 1000 and 3000 hertz are the most important for language. If these are less efficient at decoding sound then the pattern is disrupted, and the listener finds communication in all its complexity difficult.

Hypersensitivity and ADHD

The reason for sound hypersensitivity in children is found in the way in which they perceive sounds. They mainly listen with their bodies (skin and bones), known as bone conductive sound, rather than with their ears. They have little ability to filter out background noise and tune in to what matters. A listening assessment determines the degree of bone and air conducted sound, and whether or not these are in conflict. If the response through bone conduction is more acute than air conduction, the frequency concerned will be harsh, annoying or irritating. It is no surprise we tune out from such sound and do not listen to whatever the messages might be.

This behaviour is auditory defensiveness (non-listening). It can make it extremely difficult to cope with everyday life, such as the school room and playgrounds, shopping centres, cinemas, mechanical sounds and any unexpected loud noise. When confronted with this onslaught of sound, sufferers can burst into huge temper tantrums of frustration, maybe hoping that their own screams might mask the sounds that hurt so much. Behavioural patterns then start to develop as a defence mechanism.


Perhaps the most widely known benefit of undertaking a course of listening therapy is with respect to dyslexia. Although dyslexia manifests itself in different ways in different people, in general terms many dyslexics have difficulty transposing numbers and letters, making reading more difficult for them. Dyslexia does not mean in any way that a dyslexic is less intelligent or less gifted – it is often quite the contrary, and there are many distinguished and gifted dyslexics in all fields. There are two areas in which listening therapy can address the difficulties faced by dyslexics thrown into the mainstream of conventional educational methods. These are: the ability to clearly decode and analyze sound and dominance of the right ear as the leading ear when listening.

Decoding sound and analyzing it correctly is a complicated process. There is a whole range of frequencies, each with overtones and varying intensities. With dyslexia, Tomatis believed that sounds with a similar base frequency but variable overtones make it difficult to identify the sound and are therefore prone to misinterpretation. The extra effort required in decipherment, would lead to a slowing down of the interpretation, and the dyslexic would be left behind. Processing language at a slower rate means that a dyslexic has an auditory processing problem.

Reading requires us to translate a letter or word into a corresponding sound in the cochlea. The ears and eyes should work synchronously. If the vestibule and cochlea are not working together, there will be a delay, meaning that ear and eye are not coordinated as well as they might be. It follows that the right sound does not always follow on from the right letter. Once the sounds match up with the letters or words, reading and writing improve.

The second area where Tomatis Listening Therapy can help is ensuring that the right ear becomes the leading or dominant ear. The reason for this is that it is easier to process language and auditory information faster, as the neural connections between the right ear and the language centre of the brain in the left hemisphere are more direct. If the left ear is dominant, as is often the case for those with learning difficulties, then the auditory stimulus must travel a longer, more circuitous route, resulting in delay. A left ear dominant listener is always trying to catch up.

Chart - Listening Curves


Speech Delay

Speech delay is a delay in the development of the mechanisms that produce speech. The ears are our gateway to spoken communication; and speech delay can be helped by improving the functioning of the ears.

Human development shows that language starts to expand as young infants are able to stand for longer periods of time. In fact, Tomatis said that our whole body is our instrument that we must learn to play. Poor posture and muscle tone is rather like a slackened string on a musical instrument, without a certain degree of tautness that spans over the instrument, no vibrant clear sound can be produced. The ears give us the ability to move in any direction; without our ears it would be impossible to move our muscles. When the ears are not functioning optimally, sonic stimulation does not reach and activate the areas of the body which are needed for speech.

The fifth, seventh and tenth cranial nerves each interact with the muscles of our vocal apparatus. The fifth cranial nerve allows us to chew, open and close our jaw and work the muscle which moves the hammer bone in the ear. The seventh cranial nerve controls all muscles of facial expression, except the eyelids. Importantly, it also controls the muscle which moves the stirrup bone of the ear.[3] In connection with this nerve, it is observed that articulation problems develop when there is poor coordination between the two muscles of the middle ear, often accompanied by grimacing or little facial expression. The tenth cranial nerve, in many ways the most interesting of all these nerves due to its length and connections, is linked to the larynx and pharynx as well as the ear.

Case Studies

A. Boy of 13 Years

The subject is a boy of 13 years. He was reported as suffering from poor concentration (ADD) at school and at home. Testing revealed that the bone conducted sound in his left ear was totally exposed, that is, more sensitive to bone conducted sounds than air conducted sounds, making it hypersensitive and therefore he switched off. Furthermore, the lower frequency response in both ears was particularly weak. After one week of therapy the bone conducted response ‘normalized’ in the high and middle range frequencies, and his selectivity that had been closed in both ears at 4000 hertz had been opened up. After four weeks, the bone conduction was totally normalized and his lower frequency perception had increased.
His parents reported he became more communicative and reasonable; engaging in mature conversation, where before it had been inconsequential. His schoolwork improved, particularly mathematics which had previously been his weakest subject. It was reported that all his sporting skills also improved and he is now one of the strongest players on the pitch, whereas before the course he had been considered one of the weak links in the team. His new found body awareness gives him speed and agility.

B. Girl of Eight Years

The subject is a girl of eight years. She had previously been assessed as dyslexic and was having problems with literacy at school – in which she was well below the national average; “she had always found schoolwork difficult, particularly reading, spelling and arithmetic and feels quite frustrated and upset.”[4] She also suffered from bed-wetting, difficult behaviour and a lack of self-confidence. Her initial listening assessment revealed she had mixed ear dominance, the middle range frequencies (the most essential ones for language skills) were depressed in both ears, and bone conduction in the higher frequencies was exposed in both ears. Following a five week course, the above listening weaknesses got resolved, resulting in bone conduction lowering, mid range frequencies rising and the right ear achieving dominance. After the treatment, the remedial tuition at school was no longer necessary and her end of year school report said that “she has made excellent progress in literacy this year, making more than expected. As her results show her literacy is now average for her age nationally. She reads with more confidence and better fluency and her spelling is more accurate.” Her mother reports that she copes better with schoolwork and has moved to a more challenging group. Her coordination has improved, she is more confident, and now plays the piano, which her parents had been previously informed would not be easy with dyslexia. Her behaviour patterns are now less erratic and altogether more responsive to other people’s viewpoint.

C. A Boy of Six Years

The subject is a boy of six years. Although he possesses an exceptionally high IQ, he was a non-starter as far as reading went, and just could not read. His listening assessment showed that his selectivity[5] was closed down in both ears through all frequencies. Both ears had a scotoma at1500 hertz. He undertook five weeks of listening therapy and now has not only started reading, but is unstoppable, catching up and surpassing the national average. He can now occupy himself, and does not require constant external stimulation and attention. His visual cognizance has also improved. He is also reported as being adventurous with food – something that prior to the course he would not do. His mother wrote that, “my child is light years ahead with his reading than he was before he started the course.”[6]

D. A Boy of Three Years

The subject is a boy of three years. He was brought to me because of behavioural issues, hyperactivity and, in particular, speech delay. He was too young to be tested, but based on the mother’s description of the symptoms; a course of therapy was devised. As part of his therapy I filtered his mother’s voice[7] and he immediately calmed down. His mother reported that at his playgroup, and at home, his verbal responsiveness and communication has improved, his expressiveness, and the quality and quantity of what he says, is more sophisticated. He has gained in confidence.

These case studies are just a selection of many that have undergone the therapy, all with similar life changing results.


1.    Frequencies are the Measurement of a Sound being High or Low. A Low Frequency Oscillates Slowly and the Sound is Low, a High Frequency Oscillates Quickly and is Perceived as a High Pitched Sound.
2.    Tomatis AA. The Conscious Ear. 4. Station Hill Press. Barrytown. New York. 1991. (Originally published in French as L’oreille et la Vie. Editiones Robert Laffont. SA.)
3.    Tomatis Therapy Strengthens the mMuscles of the Middle Ear Which Are Responsible for the Movement of the Hammer and Stirrup Bones.
4.    Letter from mother of girl.
5.    Selectivity Means the Decipherment of Higher and Lower Sounds in a Sequence.
6.    Letter from mother of boy.
7.    A recording of the mother’s voice is used to reawaken the child’s desire to listen.


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About Ella Williams

Classical singer Ella discovered the Tomatis Listening Therapy in pursuit of an ever more perfect vocal production. The consequences that followed from undertaking the therapy were so profound and life-changing that she trained as a Tomatis consultant and now runs the Listening Centre in London. Her centre has now been open for eight years and she has seen the daily results of the therapy changing lives. Her particular interest is in bringing people into contact with their true potential and opening avenues of expression that they did not previously believe possible. Ella is a regular speaker on the subject, is a respected consultant within the European Tomatis network and in 2009 has been invited to hold a week long seminar at the University of Madrid. She may be contacted at The Listening (Voice, Music and Language) Centre, London via Tel: 0207 359 5268;

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