Tips to Help Manage Noise Sensivity
Unusual sensory responses (i.e., sensory over-responsivity, sensory under-responsivity, and sensory seeking) are relatively common in autism (ASD). While no single type of sensory problem is consistently associated with ASD, one of the most commonly reported challenges for people with autism spectrum conditions is hypersensitivity to noise. Many of the daily sounds that other people take for granted can be very intrusive and painful to children and adults on the spectrum. This article from Friendship Circle lists the types of noise sensitivity and offers some tips on how to help a highly sensitive person cope with everyday noisy situations.
1. Know the types of sensitivity
There are several different types of noise sensitivity, and there are different treatments for each type. Consult with an audiologist to pinpoint which type of sensitivity is affecting your quality of life. These are the 5 most common types of sensitivities, but keep in mind that a person may be affected by more than one issue. For example, my son has hyperacusis in addition to phobias of specific sounds.
- Hyperacusis is an intolerance of everyday environmental sounds and is often associated with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears.
- Hypersensitive hearing of specific frequencies is often (but not always) associated with autism. A person is able to tolerate most sounds at normal levels, but certain frequencies are intolerable, especially above 70 decibels. For example, a person may have no difficulty being near a noisy dishwasher, but the higher frequency and higher decibel level of the vacuum cleaner will be painful.
- Recruitment is directly related to sensorineural hearing loss. It is defined as an atypical growth in the perception of loudness. Hair cells in the inner ear typically “translate” sound waves into nerve signals. Damaged or dead hair cells cannot perceive sound, but at a certain decibel level, surrounding healthy hair cells are “recruited” to transmit, and the person experiences a sudden sharp increase in sound perception that can be shocking and painful.
- Phonophobia (also called ligyrophobia or sonophobia) is a persistent and unusual fear of sound, either a specific sound such as an alarm or general environmental sounds. People with phonophobia fear the possibility of being exposed to sounds, especially loud sounds, in present and future situations, and sometimes become homebound due to this anxiety.
- Misophonia is an emotional reaction, most often anger or rage, to specific sounds. The trigger is usually a relatively soft sound related to eating or breathing and may be connected to only one or a few people who are emotionally close to the affected person. For example, my friend Lisa’s son Nate becomes angry and runs out of the dining room because his father makes sounds while chewing food, but Nate does not become angry when his mother and sister make similar sounds.
2. Provide relief
Headphones and earplugs offer instant comfort and relief. Noise-canceling headphones are the most effective, because they replace irritating environmental noise by producing calming white noise. Earplugs are usually made of either foam or wax, and it is worth trying both types to determine which is more comfortable.
However, most audiologists, physicians, therapists and educators recommend against frequent use of headphones and earplugs, because a person can quickly become dependent on them. In the long run, blocking out noise can reduce coping skills and increase social withdrawal.
3. Identify safe environments
One of the first steps that I took for my son was to make a list of his “safe” places and increase his participation there. Depending on an individual’s needs, this could mean:
- volunteering at the library
- attending library storytime
- taking a walk in a nature area every day
- visiting a park that is near a railroad crossing or helicopter landing pad
- attending services, prayers or social events at the Shul more often
4. Allow control over some types of noise
At its heart, anxiety is a fear of being unable to control reactions and situations. When my son had a phobia of bells, I gave him several different types of bells to handle and experiment with at home. When we saw bells at customer service desks or in other public places, I allowed him to ring the bell. He gradually became comfortable with the sounds, and he even began identifying speaker systems, alarm systems and other sources of sounds everywhere we went.
5. Allow distractions
When my husband and I took a Lamaze childbirth class many years ago, we learned about the power of distraction in pain management. By giving a person something like an iPad to focus on or an unusual privilege such as bringing along a favorite toy from home, it becomes possible to direct attention away from the offending noise.
[Source: Wang, K. (2014). Noise Control: 11 Tips for Helping your Child with Autism Deal with Noise. Special Needs Resources. Friendship Circle. https://www.friendshipcircle.org/]
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. Dr. Wilkinson provides consultation services and best practice guidance to school systems, agencies, advocacy groups, and professionals on a wide variety of topics related to children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. He is also a university educator and trainer, and has published widely on the topic of autism spectrum disorders both in the US and internationally. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).