People with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) often struggle with sensory stimulation and may be particularly sensitive to noise. While no single type of sensory problem is consistently connected with ASD, audiologist have found that people on the autism spectrum may hear sounds differently than the general population. They are commonly hypersensitive (overly sensitive) to sound, hyposensitive (under sensitive) to sound, or a combination of the two.
Someone who is hyposensitive may not recognize certain pitches, might only hear in one ear and may desire loud places.
A person who is hypersensitive may hear sounds that are distorted or exaggerated, they may be uniquely sensitive to sounds at a distance, or may be easily distracted by background noise.
The National Autistic Society posted this video on sensory sensitivity, while it does not accurately illustrate all sensory issues, it does provide some insight as to how overwhelming sensory stimulation struggles can be:
Dealing with noise sensitivity
It is common for kids with ASD to become scared of noise and other sensory stimuli. People with autism have trouble expressing their fears, so it is important to watch for signs of distress, such as clinging, irritation, yelling and crying, to determine what is triggering fear. Kids with ASD may also go to extremes to avoid a noisy or fearful situation, like school or birthday parties, and parents often feel that avoiding disturbing situations is a way to protect their children. While avoidance is sometimes necessary, it does not allow children to learn how to cope with their fear.
Helping your child learn to manage their fear will help reduce anxiety and prepare him for unpredictable circumstances. Research has found that gradual exposure coupled with coping strategies can be an effective way to overcome fear. Start by encouraging your child to breathe deeply, as slow breathing helps to reduce the body’s physical response to stress. Positive mantras can also stifle anxiety and provide reassurance.
Gradual exposure to auditory triggers can help kids conquer fear and anxiety, however it does not cure hypersensitivity. For example, if the bell that rings to mark the start and end of class triggers anxiety, you might begin by listening to a recording of a school bell with the volume reduced, then slowly increase the volume over time while also practicing your coping strategies. After completing these exposures, you can provide a small reward, after all your child is working to overcome her fears and each step in the process should be acknowledged and encouraged.
The aid of an occupational therapist can be beneficial in helping your child overcome their fears, especially in extreme situations. For help finding a therapist, see www.autismva.org. If your child is nervous about starting school or moving to a new school, click here, for tips on how to prepare for the change.