FORT KENT, Maine — When Oliver Caron’s third-grade teacher at Fort Kent Elementary School told his parents that he wasn’t listening in class, Oliver was adamant he couldn’t hear her.
Caron taught himself at a young age to read the lips of those around him to navigate social situations and attempt to keep up academically, all the while assuming this is how it was for everyone else.
“For me, I didn’t think it was odd until someone told me it was odd,” said Caron, a junior at Fort Kent Community High School.
Peer interactions were also difficult for Caron, who said he always assumed it was just because he was a “socially awkward person.”
Caron wasn’t odd, nor was he socially awkward. He had a rare and often undiagnosed neurological condition that affects 2-7 percent of children that few have heard of — auditory processing disorder. Among symptoms of the condition that affects hearing are difficulties discriminating between subtle differences in sounds and words, maintaining focus on an activity if other sounds are present, or hearing in noisy social environments, according to the Hearing Health Foundation.
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Despite growing up being misunderstood by the world around him, Caron overcame the challenges of his disorder to become an award-winning high school actor, decorated tennis player and successful student.
Caron was 13 when a Portland-based audiologist officially diagnosed him after years of testing ultimately proved he did not have hearing loss. While people without auditory processing disorder can block out background noises, like those in a busy restaurant or classroom, Caron cannot.
“Noises all have the same value in my brain,” Caron said.
Lip reading his teachers while simultaneously taking notes during classes proved so exhausting that Caron said he would need to nap after school.
“If I blinked I would miss [what the teachers were saying],” Caron said. “My visual sense was more fatigued than my hearing for the day.”
Now that Caron has been diagnosed, he and his teachers use a wireless frequency modulation system to help him learn in the classroom. Caron’s teachers wear a microphone that transmits the teachers’ voices directly to Caron, helping to block out other classroom noises.
This system proved especially useful during the mandatory masking that was part of the COVID-19 pandemic, when reading lips was not possible, Caron said.
Although the FM system is not available in all situations, Caron has overcome the disorder to find success not only academically, but in extracurricular activities as well.
Recently, Caron won an All Festival Cast Award at the 2022 Maine Drama Festival for his emotional performance as a broken-hearted teen in the one-act play “Cudas’ Last Ride.”
Acting hasn’t always been on Caron’s radar, but Fort Kent Drama Club director Doug Clapp also is adviser for the high school’s Chess Club Caron belongs to and asked him during a meeting to consider taking on a minor role in the one-act play “The Guest from Ambition.”
“I found that I was liking it. I thought ‘I can do this’,” Caron said.
Caron said he reads Clapp’s lips when he gives him direction, and he repeats back to Clapp what he was told to make sure he did not misinterpret anything.
Bitten by the acting bug, Caron has acted in a number of plays since then, and is even considering a future as a voice or stage actor.
Trisha Caron, Oliver’s mother, is a registered nurse and each year on April 4, Auditory Processing Disorder Awareness Day, she posts about the condition on her Facebook page to raise awareness.
“It was a relief to find out Oliver could hear — finding accommodations was just a drop in the bucket compared to that,” Trisha Caron said.
Many children go undiagnosed, especially since symptoms such as lack of focus and inability to sit still in noisy environments often mimic Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, she said.
“I’m willing to bet there are kids taking medication for ADHD and it is this,” Trisha Caron said.
She said her son was born prematurely and had frequent ear infections as a child, both risk factors for developing auditory processing disorder.
The Caron family, which also includes father Steve, who owns and operates G and S Potato Farms in Fort Kent, and brothers Elliot and Tate Caron, do what they can to help Oliver succeed.
Trisha Caron said when the family goes out to dinner, they are sure to sit around the table in a way in which Oliver can read all of their lips. And they know that to get Oliver from his room means a knock on the door rather than shouting to him.
“I think I am closer to my family than most people,” Oliver Caron said. “I usually always prefer to hang around with them.”
Oliver Caron has also found success on the tennis court. The Aroostook League named Caron and his doubles partner Nate Voisine to the 2021 Spring All-Aroostook athletes.
Caron said his peers and the community at large are helpful, treat him well and do not make fun of him for wearing the FM device in class.
“I find most people are pretty understanding,” Caron said. “At the end of the day, if someone wants to make fun of me for something that helps me, I don’t see why I should feel inferior about it.”