What Everyone Ought To Know About Autism and Noise Sensitivity

“Sudden loud noises hurt my ears – like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve…High-pitched continuous noise, such as bathroom vent fans or hair dryers,are annoying.I have two choices: 1) turn my ears on and get deluged with sound or 2)shut my ears off.”  Temple Grandin, article, An Inside View of Autism.

autism and noise sensitivity

This thread on Wrong Planet is over four pages long.  It all started when someone asked, “Is sensitivity to noise a part of Aspergers Syndrome or could it be something else?”

I have odd sensitivity to noise…. On the TV spoken word needs to be at a higher volume…. anything with a high bass needs to be low volume, I can hear my roommates walk barefoot down a carpeted hallway, but half the time I cannot hear if someone is calling my name from 2 feet away.

Led Zepplin can be blaring in my earbuds, but I can still hear the conversation being carried out 20 feet behind me. Along with paper shuffling and tapping.


An audiology research journal article quoted a study [Stiegler, L., & Davis, R. (2010). Understanding sound sensitivity in people with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20 (10), 1–9] which stated that one of the most commonly reported challenge for people with autism spectrum conditions is hypersensitivity to noise.  Anthony Ianni described being unable to attend birthday parties as a child because of noise overwhelm.

A Small Sample Of What Noise Sensitivity Can Be Like For People With Autism

Watch this video, posted on the National Autistic Society website, understanding that each person’s experience is different –

For example, one commenter wrote:

I have Asperger’s and SPD and don’t see my sensory problems expressed in this video. The sensory reality that leads to overload is chaotic, unpredictable, confusing and meaningless… whereas this video is rhythmic, predictable, an ordered pattern, almost like music (not pretty music, but still). Whoever made this  couldn’t resist the temptation to make music  when given a multitude of sounds to play with:-)   That is understandable, but it doesn’t illustrate sensory overload.

Why Are People With Autism Sensitive to Noise?

On the one hand, audiologists haven’t been find many differences in the peripheral or central auditory of people with ASD as compared to their peers.  On the other hand, imaging studies suggest that, for people on the spectrum, researchers have found differences in the temporal lobe of the brain, the cortical area that helps with auditory processing.

Other researchers hypothesize that strong avoidance to certain sounds and noises may be learned responses that are either fear or annoyance based.

Audiologists have found that people on the spectrum may have enhanced perception to certain sounds, impaired perception of other sounds, or a combination of hyper (overly sensitive) or hypo (unable to pick up on) sensitivity to sounds.

Someone who is hyposensitive may only hear sounds in one ear; may not acknowledge certain sounds; or might seek out loud, crowded, and noisy places.

Someone who is hypersensitive may hear sound as magnified, and the sound may become magnified and distorted; may be super sensitive to a certain sound or sounds at a distance; or may have a hard time concentrating because s/he is very sensitive to background noise.

Dealing with Autism and Noise Sensitivity

Take a Break from Sound

I read threads from Wrong Planet and on Quora to learn what people with Aspergers and autism use to take a break from sound.

Here are some resources they shared, and others I researched on Amazon.com, which I’m passing along to you.

Shure SE215-CL Sound Isolating Headphones.  On the more expensive end.  Priced $99 and lower.

Sony MDR-NC7/BLK Noise Canceling On-Ear Headphones.

sony noise cancelling headphones

From the Amazon description –

  • Active noise canceling headphones reduce outside ambient noise by 87.4%
  • Noise cancelation can be switched on/off and uses a single AAA battery
  • Foldable and swivel design for easy portability; travel pouch included
  • Neodymium magnet and 30mm drivers deliver powerful, detailed sound
  • Includes airplane adapter for in-flight entertainment (stereo or dual jack)

Comply Whoomp Foam Tips (Platinum, 3 Pairs, Medium)

I like these because of the price: $14.95!  Here are some of the features from the Amazon page –

  • Breathable Memory Foam for Supreme Comfort
  • Secure, stay-in-ear fit for extended wear
  • Superior noise isolation for private listening
  • Get better sound from your iPod/iPhone earbuds
  • Fits Apple dual-driver in-ear headphones only

3M Peltor H10A Optime 105 Earmuff

These earmuffs actually block noise out.  They’re also very reasonably priced at around $21.  Features, as per Amazon:

  • Noise Reduction Rating of 30dB
  • Superior comfort, fit, and hearing protection
  • Fully adjustable steel wire padded headband
  • Patented twin-cup design
  • Recommended for extremely loud conditions

Learn About The 4 Types Of Sound Sensitivity

The information in the following table comes from the following two articles:

Living With Extreme Sound Sensitivity, by Dr. Craig Maxwell, and Four Types Of Sound Sensitivity, by the Hyperacusis Network.

Types of Noise Sensitivity Definition How Treatment Helps
Hyperacusis Hyperacusis (also spelled hyperacousis) is a health condition characterized by an over-sensitivity to certain frequency and volume ranges of sound (a collapsed tolerance to usual environmental sound).  Common Treatment is listening to broadband pink noise through sound generators (special hearing aids), which must be ordered through a specially trained doctor or audiologist who administers Hyperacusis (Tinnitus) Retraining Therapy.  Cost is $3-4K, typically not covered by insurance.The Expensive Route – To learn more about TRT you might consider reading Dr. Jastreboff’s book “Tinnitus Retraining Therapy.” A list of TRT clinicians can be seen by visiting this website: http://www.tinnitus-pjj.com/referral.html B) The second way one can deliver broadband pink noise to their ears would be to purchase the broadband pink noise CD from the network. (Not an affiliate link).  Read this article for more details about how to listen to the pink noise.
Recruitment “Recruitment is the a rapid growth of perceived loudness for sounds in the pitch region of a person who has hearing loss.” definition via the Hyperacusis Network Common treatment is the same as it is for hyperacusis unless the persons hearing loss is so pronounced that listening to broadband pink noise would be of no benefit to them.
Hypersensitive Hearing (Of Specific Frequencies) Condition characterized by being  sound sensitive at birth but it is only specific to certain frequencies heard at loud levels (typically above 70 decibels). This type of condition is often treated by audiologist specialists via auditory integration training.  Unfortunately, this type of therapy has not been concluded to be necessarily effective.  (seeWikipedia article on auditory integration training)
Phonophobia/Misophonia Phonophobia -(fear of sound) is an adverse emotional response to sound and often develops with a person who has a significant collapsed tolerance to sound.Misophonia (dislike of sound) is also an adverse response to sound no matter what volume the sound is.  Typically misophonia characterizes a person who reacts strongly to soft sounds and sometimes is further triggered by seeing the source of the offending sound.  Common examples would include but are not limited to:  the sound of people eating, smacking their lips, sniffing, the sound of certain consonants like p, s, or t, and repetitive sounds.   definitions via the Hyperacusis Network  Read more about this topic in Dr. Maxwell’s article, Living With Extreme Sound Sensitivity

 

The Hyperacusis Network offers these suggestions for seeking help for noise sensitivities:

To view the most current information on improving your hyperacusis view these two links:

http://www.chat-hyperacusis.net/post?id=2749195

http://www.chat-hyperacusis.net/post/trt-worldwide-list-of-clinicians-retraining-therapy-3334680

You can also contact the Hyperacusis Network via their mail or emailing address:

The Hyperacusis Network

4417 Anapula Lane

Green Bay, WI  54311

Email: earhelp@yahoo.com

Therapeutic Exposure to Noise? (See Comments at The End of This Article)

Koegel, Oppenon, and Koegel (2004) demonstrated that systematic desensitization by exposing children with ASD who had extreme reactions to household appliances, musical toys, and toilets helped these children increasingly tolerate these sounds.  They gradually exposed the children more often to these sounds, and gave simple rewards for tolerating exposure longer.  Caregivers and clinicians (Prizant and Meyer, 1993) provided reassuring messages through words and/or visuals that target sounds are ‘safe’ or ‘okay’.

As an autistic adult, you can practice exposure on your own.

Here’s a free Exposure homework sheet.  List the sounds that are hardest to tolerate, from least stressful to most stressful.  Practice exposing yourself to the noise.  You may also want to set a timer for yourself to see how long you can tolerate the noise.

Once you’re able to tolerate the less stressful noise, move on to the next one.

As you learn to tolerate noise, you’ll become less stressed out and more able to handle different environments.

Computer Aided Exposure

This study extensively summarizes research literature on the causes of autism sensitivity to noise, current audiologist interventions, and then proposes a new way to expose children to uncomfortable noises in a way that is actually fun.

I can’t review the study here, but here’s the study and the link so you can read it over carefully and decide whether you’d like to try his methods out for yourself.   Managing Noise Sensitivity in Autism Spectrum Disorder, New Technologies for Customized Intervention, by Robert Morris (2003)

Are you sensitive to noises?  What strategies and solutions have you used to cope?

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photo credit: Ben Husmann via photopin cc

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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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  • Beccy Walters

    As an autistic adult eho suffers with hypersensitivity I can guarantee exposure does not work, if it did I would not still be hypersensitive at the age of 30, I was exposed to lots and I can tell you it was painful and totally unfair, please stop promoting these therapies, just respect that we are different and we don’t all like noise, we dont have to fit in to your box, you dont fit in ours!

  • Yvonne

    Noise exposure doesn’t work, noise sensitivity is painful and can leave you overwhelmed. I do try to be secretive and put a finger/hand over the ear that the noise is closest to also find myself stimming so I can keep it together

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  • Beccy, thank you for the feedback.

  • Thank you, Yvonne, for sharing your experience.

  • Beccy, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m not trying to fit anyone into a box. In fact, I’m reading Pretending to Be Normal, by Liane Holliday Wiley, and she shares how she became more used to certain noises as she was around them. By no means do I want anyone to “force” this intervention on someone, and from what you’re telling me, it would need to be an “intervention” that the client would be open to and want to try.

    Another article I read was to give the person a choice as to whether they want to be around a certain noise or not. That way it’s up to them. Maybe that’s better?

  • Yvonne, have you found whether headphones or other equipment/devices have helped you to mute the noise?

  • Yvonne

    I have tried but find it awkward when my children are trying to speak with me or I need to hear other things that then sound really dull and I struggle to listen.

  • Thanks, Yvonne. I spoke with Shawna (@soundless2 on Twitter), who struggles with similar sensory issues, and she said the same thing – she has to keep her eye on her son, who also is autistic, so that he doesn’t wander off, so it’s not like she can have earphones on during the day.

  • Christina Grybel

    There are some of us who can’t tolerate putting things in ears. I have to use regular old fashioned headphones.

  • Christina – I don’t specifically deal with noise sensitivity, and I also struggle with earbuds (the ones that go into the ear). I much prefer old fashioned headphones as well!

  • Lilibet

    I have high functioning autism and suffer a lot with noise sensitivity. Many sounds can be extremely triggering, painful and at times, traumatic. The problem I have with it all though is I am severely deaf. I have bilateral sensorineural hearing loss(nerve deafness) and wear two hearing aids. People don’t understand how I’m so sensitive to sounds and how there’s some sounds that affect me and others that don’t. It’s a nightmare trying to explain it to people because they can’t comprehend how a person with HFA finds both loud, normal and especially quiet sounds a problem. I have difficulty making out speech sounds yet can hear someone clicking a pen loudly across a room. Clicking pens have triggered sensory overloads but when you try and explain how you can hear a pen click but can’t hear a lot of sounds, people get very confused and often get angry or disbelieve the distress it causes me.

    Often I take my hearing aids out to take a break from the sensory noise stuff but I can’t do this all the time as I need to use my hearing aids to be able to hear conversation etc. high functioning autism and severe hearing loss is a lousy combination. 🙁

  • Hair dryers used to bother me. I would buy those advertised to be quiet but would still awkwardly put one hand over my ear. I did a heavy metal detox over a year’s time. I noticed that the hair dryer wasn’t bothering me anymore and wondered if my hearing was affected. I had it checked and my hearing was perfect. My only conclusion is that the heavy metal chelation must have reduced my sensitivity. i still put my fingers in my ears when there is a fire drill at work!

  • Wow, Cindy, that’s really an interesting experience! Did the heavy metal detox improve other aspects of your senses?

  • Lillibet, thanks for sharing your experience. It reminds me of the medical condition called tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. I can’t imagine how annoying it must be for you 🙁

  • SI2K

    Exposure therapy works for taming the anxiety (i.e. coping somewhat,) but not for curing sensory disabilities. I’ve always wondered if what some people experience is a synethesia of the vestibular/auditory system. When jets fly overhead, for example, I feel like I’m physically being pushed down to the ground. My left auditory/vestibular nerve has been tested at 20% function/80% impairment. This would also explain the strange gait we often see with Asperger’s and the need to stim the vestibular system with rocking and spinning.

  • Thanks, SI2K, for sharing your experience! I appreciate the corrective you and others have offered regarding exposure therapy not being so helpful for sensory disabilities. What have been some positive ways you’ve coped with noise sensitivity?

  • Dar

    Hi Beccy,
    My son is a 25 y/o autistic adult. He was diagnosed as a child with what I used to refer as being “alphabetically blessed”. I was told he had ADHD, ADD,ODD, OCD, SPD, APD, TS, Manic Depressive and even said he was a Sociopath. There were so many diagnoses that I’m sure I am missing a few. Years later, bad decision after bad decision, choosing any type of person to hang around just to have a “friend”, job loss after job loss.. We finally found out at the age of 22, he has ADHD, Asperger’s and Bipolar 2 disorder. Years of possible help, completely have been completely being lost. More frustrating is that the new Dr. took one look at him and noticed it immediately. He has always complained about clothing and sounds “hurting” him but now, he is hearing things that other can not. One specifically being “sirens” and people talking when the room is completely quiet. I know this is really starting to get to him and he needs some sort of relief! Do you have any suggestions?

  • Beccy, I hope you’re okay with my responding. I would recommend that he connect with others who have Aspergers, so that he can know he’s not alone. Dan Wendler is a young man, maybe 28 years old? He’s got a great perspective on Aspergers, himself diagnosed when he was in high school — you could listen to this podcast episode and see what you think – http://goo.gl/4ieu0T.

  • tjsutton

    It’s kind of weird for me … some sounds, like my husband snoring, can make me almost angry. I can’t quit hearing it, like I can other sounds. And if he wakes me with his snoring, there is no way I can go back to sleep. And it doesn’t matter if it is loud or quiet snoring. If there is a rhythm to it, I pick up on that, and then when he gasps or snorts (almost startles me), it throws me off and becomes irritating again. On the other hand, If I listen to music and I’m by myself, I have it up quite loud, almost getting lost in it, and shutting everything else out. Music can lift my spirits when the rest of the world is getting on my nerves. I’m lucky in that my job allows me to work from home. I can’t imagine working in an office with people talking, tapping fingers, etc. I don’t think I would be able to function very well in that type of environment. Like others have mentioned earbuds are uncomfortable (can’t explain why, they don’t hurt). And headphones can really bug me, especially if they aren’t placed in the exact correct place, with my hair tucked behind my ears. I feel so silly when little things like this drive me crazy … reading about this makes feel a little less weird.

  • tj, thanks so much for sharing your experience. You’re not alone – so many people seem to deal with this. I’m glad that you’ve been able to use music to de-stress and lift your spirits 🙂

  • Chelate mercury and take magnesium.

  • Look up biomedical treatment. Chelate mercury.

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  • I don’t think so. Then again, I don’t have other sensory issues.