Studies show that around 30 to 90 percent of people with autism ignore or overreact to familiar sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. The Simons Simplex Collection autism research project showed that 68% of children who participated had unusual sensory interests and about 65% have sensitivities to noise.
Your child may be one who belongs to the group with noise or sound sensitivity where it can be painful and cause a panic attack. When this happens, your child will have difficulty focusing on the task he is doing, escalating his anxiety level. Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR-BC explains that “An anxious or angry child is in flight-or-fight mode with their body primed to handle a perceived threat.”
Loud sounds may seem ordinary to us – the sound of the washing machine, sounds of a motorcycle, barking dogs, ringing bells, an approaching train – but to a child with autism, such noises can cause him to cover his ears and cry. Reducing the noise by taking him for a stroll in the woods, visiting a church, or going to the library can make him more relaxed and focused.
Categorization Sound Sensitivity
- Hyperacusis is the person’s intolerance to daily conversational sounds. It is said to be related to having tinnitus.
- Susceptibility to sound once it reaches the frequency that is intolerable is said to be related to autism. A person may tolerate some sounds at their average level but becomes intolerable at given frequencies.
- Recruitment is distinctly linked to the person’s nerve deafness. Due to damaged hair cells, one cannot perceive the sound, but when it increased to a particular decibel level, the healthy hair cells are “recruited” to spread the sound, and the person experiences a sharp rise in sound perception which can shock him and may cause pain.
- Phonophobia is the fear of sound or fear of possible exposure to sounds, especially loud ones.
- Misophonia which is the emotional reaction to certain sounds may lead to anger or rage. It could be soft sounds, like the sound that one makes while eating or breathing.
How Noise Can Be Reduced And Improve Autism’s Tolerance
Amy Keefer PhD, a clinical psychologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders, says, “Another potential stress reducer is practicing acceptance,” Dr. Keefer said. “Parents who accept where their child is today seem to do better.”It’s important to help your child with autism manage or tolerate noise and enjoy them rather than fear them.
- Visit an audiologist to help you pinpoint which type of sensitivity is affecting your child’s quality of life.
- Provide relief. They can be in the form of earphones or earplugs which can offer immediate comfort.
- Make a list of places where he feels safe and encourages him to participate – being in a library, walking in the forest, playing in the park, or attending services and social events in the church.
- Help him control some noises that affect him negatively, like have him around when you’re using the washing machine, let him enjoy using it and explain what it does, until he becomes comfortable with its sound. Allowing him to play with cute little bells will make him more familiar with it until he learns to identify sounds and its sources wherever he goes.
- Give him something to distract him from the noise, like an iPad or TV or let him hold his favorite toy.
- Gradual desensitization may help relieve noise sensitivity. First, try to observe from a distance and then slowly take a step closer given the opportunity. Reading books about stories of firefighters, imitating the sound of sirens, buying him a firefighter costume, and make-believe play will help him be familiar with the sound until the sound of sirens and alarms don’t bother him that much anymore.
- Tinnitus retraining therapy involves listening to broadband pink noise to familiarize a person through the ringing in the ears. It can help someone with hyperacusis to regain tolerance to sound.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy is recommended for phonophobia and anxiety. The therapist teaches the person how to self-manage his emotions and some coping skills. It aims to rework someone’s thought process regarding the cause of his anxiety to increase his quality of life.
- Often, hyperacusis or tinnitus is due to a deficiency in magnesium and other minerals. If this emerged to be the case for your child, ask your doctor if nutritional supplements can be of help.
- Food additives, like the ones that belong to the salicylate family, are related to noise sensitivity. Some diets, such as a diverse whole food diet, eradicate those additives to help reduce sensitivity to sounds.
The world is an overly noisy place. Some may be able to tolerate it, but others just cannot. If you notice such sound sensitivity in your child, have him get evaluated so you can seek guidance on how to properly handle these sound issues.
“Autism tends to shine a bright light on whatever issues were already there.” Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC said. Don’t let your child’s hypersensitive hearing hinder him to enjoy music, sounds, and other activities.