For some children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, being extremely sensitive to sounds in their environment is a daily challenge. Auditory sensitivity presents in different ways, but common signs include:
- covering the ears,
- humming or other vocal sounds,
- moving away from the sound source, and
- increased anxiety or behavior changes when certain sounds are present.
Be aware that these behaviors are signs a child is trying to deal with unpleasant or even painful sensations. To the child it may feel like tickling in the ear, seem like poking or hitting the eardrum, or he may feel his skull vibrating.
If a child demonstrates auditory sensitivity, the first step is to determine what sounds he is sensitive to. Keeping diary is a good way to track and identify sound responses. When the child shows signs of auditory sensitivity, write down the behavior and any sounds you can identify in the environment. Keep in mind that some sounds irritating to a child with autism may be barely perceptible to others, such as a florescent light bulb buzz or an electronic hum. A pattern should emerge fairly quickly. Be aware of:
- High- or low-pitched sounds
- Loud sounds above a certain decibel level
- Static, echoes or buzzing
- Combinations of sounds, like the TV and someone talking simultaneously
Tips to Cope
Make sure the offending sounds are reduced or eliminated where the child spends long periods of time. If sounds cannot be completely eliminated, try to provide an area as a refuge from the offensive sounds. When in an environment where the sound cannot be controlled, provide other options for sound management.
- Remove florescent light bulbs.
- Remove electronics or noisy appliances.
- Keep TV and radio volumes set in low ranges, or turn them off completely
- Add sound absorbing materials such as cork, foam, fabrics, and carpet.
- Weather-strip or seal the edges and bottoms of interior doors to provide additional sound barriers.
- Use a sound machine or a soft radio pleasant to the child to mask unpleasant sounds.
- Allow the child to wear sound-muting earplugs or headphones
- Mask sounds with favorite music from an MP3 player using headphones
- Avoid unnecessary exposure, such as eating at a noisy restaurant or being near construction
In some cases controlled, repeated exposure may reduce a child’s sensitivity to sound, but this does not apply to every child. A professional trained in sensory integration should be consulted to determine if this is appropriate and to design a proper treatment plan.