What It’s Like to Have Auditory Processing Disorder, As Illustrated By Auto-Generated YouTube Captions

Like a lot of people with ADHD, I also have central auditory processing disorder.

CAPD manifests as a problem understanding speech and other sounds. It isn’t a hearing problem per se: The structures of the ear work just fine to capture sound waves and transmit them as electrical impulses to the brain. The brain, however, struggles to interpret these electrical impulses effectively.

People with CAPD frequently have trouble understanding what’s being said to them, especially if the sound of the speaker is in any way distorted (phone lines, VoIP), interrupted (conversations in noisy restaurants), or intruding upon a preexisting focus (someone trying to talk to you while you’re concentrating).

Most folks with CAPD identify heavily with this exchange:

Them: Can you hand me the remote?
You: What?
Them: Can you hand m-
You: Oh, sure. *passes remote*

It’s not that we didn’t hear the first “can you hand me the remote?”, per se. It’s that our brains lag translate it into a comprehensible statement. We know we were asked something (hence “What?”), but it takes extra time for us to realize what the something was.

And we very often get it wrong. “Can you hand me the remote?” could just as easily be interpreted by our brains as “Canoe slappy boat,” or as sounds that don’t register as language at all. (“Canoe slappy boat” is very likely because our brains will try to make sense of the sound input we just got, and “canoe” and “boat” are related words.)

capd

When Captions Fail

Like a lot of people with CAPD, I watch television with the captions on. Captions help my brain keep up with what’s being said by giving me an insta-check on what I thought I heard.

Usually.

Auto-generated captions, created by algorithm, are increasingly popular – particularly on sites like YouTube, where captioning everything uploaded in one minute would take over 300 years if done by humans.

The accuracy of YouTube’s auto-generated caption algorithm appears to depend on many of the same factors that affect the accuracy of comprehension in CAPD. For instance, auto-generated captions over a single speaker enunciating clearly into a microphone in an otherwise silent space are generally accurate. Auto-generated captions over a musical track or with significant background noise are often not.

Sometimes, however, the speech seems clear but the auto-generated captions really fail. And in one particular instance, the failures looked almost exactly like what my brain “hears” through the filter of CAPD.

Strength of the Algorithm: Auto-Captioning Fails in BraveStarr

BraveStarr ran for one season, in 1987-88. The show was Filmation’s last animated series (He-Man and She-Ra having both been pulled the year before). It has a lot of the hallmarkes of a Filmation piece – especially the presence of nearly-incomprehensible characters and the use of the same five voice actors for nearly every character.

Here’s what it’s like to hear through CAPD. (The first two examples are from the episode “Unsung Hero.” The rest are from “An Older Hand.”)

Unsung Hero

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YouTube/My Brain: “…interested in in mining carrion no one wants to be a pot farmer imprudent….”

The Actual Line: “…interested in mining Keriam. No one wants to be a pod farmer, including [my son].”

This was the first screenshot I grabbed. At the time, I was merely amused at the “pot farmer” part of the joke.

Then things got even more inappropriate:

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YouTube/My Brain: “you all right I think so oh but your whoreson stolen”

The Actual Line: “You all right? I think so. Oh, but your horse was stolen!”

CAPD makes my brain translate ordinary sentences into potentially offensive ones all the time. I don’t even comment on it anymore.

(Given that the brain tries to fit sound into a pattern with which it’s already familiar, this might say more about the frequency with which I hear and use profanity than it does about CAPD.)

Typically, YouTube’s auto-caption generator doesn’t trip much on human characters’ lines. The humans characters’ voice actors tend to deliver these lines straight; they save accents, funny voices, etc. for non-human characters. The algorithms’ ability to handle non-human characters’ lines ranges from “bad” to “nonexistent.”

An Older Hand

All of these examples contain lines delivered by various Prairie People.

Normally, YouTube’s auto-generated captions don’t interpret the Prairie People’s voices as speech at all. Captions simply aren’t generated when Prairie People are speaking.

In this episode, however, the algorithm recognized when Prairie People characters were speaking most of the time. But it struggled with what they were saying – in a way very similar to my own brain’s struggles.

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My Brain/YouTube: “bigger you might be you maybe not Maggie what’s your work being a good screen”

The Actual Line: “Whoa. Maybe not magic, but still work pretty good.” [scene change] “BraveStarr….”

Like a lot of things I hear with CAPD, this caption makes no literal sense. Those are words, but they cannot possibly be the words the speaker actually said – can they?

This caption also carries over lines from a previous character/scene into the new one, where it mashes them together with the start of a line delivered by a character in this scene. It’s not unlike having to listen to someone speak in a noisy restaurant or bar: My brain doesn’t always distinguish between “what this person is saying” and “what someone else in the room said.”

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YouTube/My Brain: “real that really be young bad guy a riot you’ll never did stop believin”

The Actual Line: “Well, that’s where it belong, by golly wollies.” “You never did stop believing….”

I didn’t expect YouTube to get “by golly wollies” on the first try (or ever). But idiolectic details like “by golly wollies” can make the comprehension process even harder. Until I’m aware that the person will frequently do things like interject “by golly wollies” or pronounce “washing” with an “r,” my brain won’t account for them in processing – so I’ll struggle even more to understand the speaker.

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YouTube/My Brain: “you know you lose your hoop boys always believing you but it more potent”

The Actual Line: “No sir, Fuzz always believe in you. But it more important….”

This line almost made me wish YouTube had not started picking up on the Prairie People’s speech as speech. I’ve watched enough Fuzz episodes to understand him (on a 2-3 second delay), but the captions here actually made matters a lot worse.

This is also a good example of how non-spoken sounds will get interpreted by a CAPD brain as speech. “No sir, Fuzz” became “you know you lose your hoop boys” due to background non-speech noises in the actual scene.

It’s not that people with CAPD aren’t listening to you. It’s that what you said + all the sounds around it = “you know you lose your hoop boys.” You’d say “What?!” too.

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YouTube/My Brain: “karyam I’m as powerful as she wore brave stars under stick”

The Actual Line: “…Keriam. I’m as powerful as you are, BraveStarr! ThunderStick….”

YouTube’s lack of punctuation in auto-generated captions illustrates another common pitfall for those of us with CAPD: We don’t always “hear” where punctuation fits into spoken language.

For instance, this joke is typically presented in written form:

Let’s eat grandma!

Let’s eat, grandma!

Commas save lives.

When spoken, there’s typically a change in pace and pitch that indicates the relationship between “eat” and “grandma” that the comma encodes in writing. Here’s a bad attempt to draw it:

lets eat grandma

People without CAPD can hear the change in pace and pitch that indicates whether “let’s eat” is a comment made to grandma (let’s eat, grandma!) or if grandma is the object to be eaten (let’s eat grandma).

With CAPD, the brain doesn’t always process pace and pitch, either. So even if we understand the words “let’s,” “eat,” and “grandma,” we may not know whether the speaker is proposing to grandma that we eat… or proposing we eat grandma.

This auto-generated caption mistake crams together parts of three separate sentences, each of which include one name (“Keriam,” “BraveStarr,” “ThunderStick”). The combination of proper names and lack of punctuation further confuses the meaning, both in the caption and in hearing with CAPD.

What’s the Point of All This?

I started collecting auto-caption BraveStarr mishaps because they were funny. I still giggle at “no one wants to be a pot farmer.”

But they also turn out to be great examples of how my brain mishears things.

Living with CAPD can be tough, especially when you go undiagnosed for decades (as I did). With CAPD, people assuming you’re deaf or hard of hearing is the good outcome. They’re more likely to assume you’re rude or lazy, especially if they know you well enough to know you can hear.

To complicate matters, CAPD often rides along with neurodivergences that make people more sensitive to sound, like autism and ADHD. It’s not uncommon for children with CAPD to get hearing tests that report their hearing is, if anything, too good. It’s not enough to test hearing – you also need to test processing, or what happens once the sound gets from the ear into the brain.

Normally, I’m not a fan of disability simulations. These auto-generated captions, however, failed in a way so completely similar to what I hear, and for so many of the same reasons, that they offer the closest thing I’ve yet found to actually having CAPD.

So the next time someone who seems to hear perfectly well asks “What?”, just assume they heard you say “you know you lose your hoop boys” – and that they respect you enough not to write you off as really spouting gibberish.


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What Is Neurodivergence?

On this blog, I deal with questions and challenges “on writing, neurodivergence, and the creative process.” Lots of folks have heard of the first and third, but fewer have heard of the second.

What Is Neurodivergence_

What Is Neurodivergence?

From “neuro-,” meaning “pertaining to the nervous system,” and “divergence,” meaning “the process or state of things becoming different,” neurodivergence refers to the state of having a brain, nervous system, or both that operates different from the typical. The word neurotypical is often used to describe the “typical” from which one diverges.

Neurodivergence overlaps with, but is broader than, the world of existing diagnoses for neurological or psychological conditions. Autism, ADHD, multiplicity, and schizophrenia are forms of neurodivergence; so are epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. Acquired or developed neurodivergences exist in the form of traumatic brain injuries, white matter lesions from chronic migraines, dementia, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and alterations from substance use (legal or otherwise). And there are almost certainly forms of neurodivergence that we can’t see on scans and haven’t created diagnostic criteria for. (Folks with more than one neurodivergence are often called “multiply neurodivergent.”)

Does neurodivergence’s “opposite,” neurotypicality, exist? It’s tough to say. No two human nervous systems are identical, so choosing any one nervous system from the several billion currently existing on the planet and calling that The Neurotypical Brain(TM) would be tough to do, at best.

Neurotypicality does, however, exist as a social and cultural norm, with profound implications for medicine, education, employment, and everyday life. If you were ever taunted on the playground by kids calling you “weird,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “cuckoo,” “spaz,” “retard,” or “messed up,” congratulations: your classmates were telling you that “normal” is a thing and you weren’t it.

Neurodivergence and Creativity

Everyone “knows” there’s a link between neurodivergence and creativity, or innovation, or genius…but no one knows quite what it is, or what fosters it, or why.

My interest in the relationship between neurodivergence and creativity is more practical, because my experience of creativity is more practical. Having ADHD has taught me that a thousand ideas a second are useless if you can’t see even one of them through to its final form.

That’s why, here, I write about the practical side: how to channel various neurodivergences in the directions you want to go in order to get work done.

It’s why I’ve written a three-part series on how I drafted my first novel in 10 months with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD.

It’s why I’m keenly interested in questions of emotional labor, particularly the emotional labor that autistic and other neurodivergent people are pressured to do on a daily basis in the name of keeping neurotypicality firmly rooted in the center of “normal” – and how this burden disproportionately falls on women and on people perceived as women.

It’s why I write a lot – both here and in my published works – about finding and maintaining the sort of inner and outer structures that allow neurodivergent creatives to find their “even keel,” which may or may not look like what the rest of the world calls “mental health” but which allows the individual to manage their life and dial down the distress that can otherwise tank creativity. Lowering the mental and emotional cost of being neurodivergent matters, to our creativity and to our well-being.

It’s why I’m adamant that creatives need to be paid, and not in “exposure.” Creatives of all neurotypes often struggle to pay the bills while still creating, and the fight can be even tougher for neurodivergent creatives, who need to pay the bills and create while also navigating a world that often actively opposes their neurotype…or worse, exploits it.

When exposure is what you’re paid in, it’s also what you die of.

Writing on Neurodivergence: The State of the Conversation

Googling “neurodiversity” nets millions of results, ranging from academic works to badly-spelled anonymous forum posts. Googling “neurodivergence” turns up considerably less work.

The term “neurodivergence” (and its adjective form, “neurodivergent”) was coined by Kassiane Asasumasu to address a problem with the word neurodiversity: namely, that while “neurodiversity” describes groups very well, it doesn’t describe particular individuals within those groups.

A group that has neurodiversity, or a neurodiverse group, will contain at least one person who is neurodivergent, but that person as an individual is not “neurodiverse” (unless they are a multiple system whose members have a variety of neurotypes, which is more common than you’d think!).

And when you Google “neurodiversity,” things get even more fraught, because that word gets used to mean multiple things: a basic biological fact, a subset of the disability rights movement, a way of speaking about neurodivergence that doesn’t put our ideas about neurotypicality on a pedestal, …and so on.

Confused? Nick Walker wrote the seminal piece on the subject, which has been translated into several languages. For an even more 101 version, see my 2016 article at Un-Boxed Brain. Michelle Swan has an excellent piece for those who diverge in directions that psychiatric science hasn’t yet put a label on. And for a short but devastating list of ways in which we build boundaries around the “normal” by pushing the neurodivergent out of it, check out this piece by Gillian Giles.

As part of my research on autism and rhetoric, I’ve been writing about neurodivergence, and the ways we talk about it, for several years. Two of my publicly-available academic articles on it are available:

I’ve also been cited in Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances, both of which deal with rhetoric and neurodivergence.

Do Shelter Cats Really Find Good Homes? Three Cats Weigh In

I recently received this answer request on Quora:

Are the homes that cats find in shelters really good ones?

In the interest of mitigating my obvious human bias, I asked my three cats this question.

Their answer? Definitely not.

The human who adopted us from the shelter is a total garbage nightmare. Get this: She only gives us canned food twice a day. The rest of the day, we have to survive on kibble. Kibble!

The torture doesn’t stop there. Just this morning, the horrible human brushed us. That wasn’t so bad, but then she also trimmed our nails. How dare she!

Every night, the oldest cat gets wrapped in a towel and given a pill. What is the purpose of this pill?

Trick question: It has no purpose, other than to torment the cat by keeping her alive so that the human can pill her again tomorrow.

You’d think even a human would find other things to do now and then, but no. The agony continues day and night.

For example, we cats aren’t even allowed to run back and forth across the bed at five in the morning! We have to do that in the rest of the house instead!

What is the point of existence if you can’t trample someone in their sleep every night?!

It’s not just the human, either. The local wildlife is in on the cruelty, as well.

For instance, there’s a local squirrel who sits on the fence and stares at the cats. Does this squirrel come inside and get eaten like a good prey animal? Of course it doesn’t! How rude!

And don’t even get us started on the birds. Those feathered jerks sit on the feeder all day long, just on the other side of the glass that separates them from the cat tree (which, by the way, the human vacuums once a week with that awful monster that lives in the closet).

Even our toys are in on the torment. Yesterday, the kitten knocked a stuffed mousie down an air vent, and the mousie didn’t even come back when called.

The audacity!

Worst of all: Once or twice a year, for absolutely no reason at all, the human puts all three cats into boxes and drives us TO THE VET.

And if a cat gets sick? There’s an even bigger chance they’ll have to go TO THE VET.

The human clearly preys upon feline weakness.

“But it can’t be all bad!” I hear you cry. “Surely you get petted every now and then? Treats? Catnip?”

Oh, you sweet summer child.

The human, delighted by feline misery, frequently pets the cats with only one hand. Worse, sometimes the human will do this while using the other hand to cruelly thwart the cat’s attempts to snatch human food off the human’s plate.

What did kitty ever do to deserve this?

Does the human tell us we are good cats and pretty cats? Of course she does. Do we understand English? No, we do not.

As for catnip, let’s just say this: The human hoards it in the backyard and in a little jar in the pantry, and she can’t even get high off it.

UGH. WHY ARE HUMANS ALLOWED?


Help end feline suffering: donate to the Gracie, Melody and Pippa Toy and Treat Fund.