As with much of the wealth of knowledge we have about children with autism, their sensitivity to sound has not been fully explained. Yet we do know that it is one of the most common symptoms.
Sensory sensitivity is common in itself but an overreaction to sound in particular is often the most obvious and severe struggle that ASD children face. However, it won’t affect all children equally. For a great number of children with autism, the opposite is true, with them actually showing signs of being under-sensitive to noise. In this case, they may be unresponsive when you call their name, seemingly unable to hear you.
For those children who are over-sensitive to sound, noise that seems at a suitable level to you may be overwhelming to them. This is because their senses are taking in too much information. In contrast, under-sensitive children will have senses that take in too little information. The exact reasons behind this are unclear.
Research shows it seems to come down to how the brain is wired. Researchers at MIT and Brown University believe they have discovered a neural circuit that could account for differences in how the world is perceived. This particular circuit requires a protein called Shank3 but in tests on mice where this protein is lacking, neurons are over-active, causing an exaggerated response to stimuli. This occurs in a region of the brain known as the somatosensory cortex, an area that has long been linked to autism.
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Essentially, the brain is responding more actively than it needs to when a noise occurs. This can spark a fight or flight response in your child: an intense feeling of anxiety that something is wrong. This is just one theory of many but an important one. Other causes could be a problem in the ear itself or the side effects of medication. Be sure to check all the possible causes before deciding upon a medical solution.
By understanding how this over-active response operates at a cellular level, it is hoped that scientists will one day discover a treatment. Being over-sensitive to noise or light can cause problems in everyday life for children with autism. Parents and peers must be cautious to avoid making too much noise around a child with autism but this always isn’t possible. While everyday changes like this should be encouraged, it would be incredibly beneficial if researchers were able to find a medical solution. If there was some way to give affected children an extra dose of Shank3, some of the worst cases of sensory over-sensitivity might be improved.
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Signs your ASD child is struggling with sound sensitivity
In both very young and older children with autism, it can be hard to detect if sound sensitivity is occurring. It’s important to look out for the signs so that you can make the necessary changes to daily life. Talking to your child is, of course, important but you can also figure out a lot from his/her behavioral responses to different stimuli.
It’s also important to take time to understand what a child is experiencing when he/she hears distressing levels of noise. While a particular noise might sound comfortable and unnoteworthy to you, it may be incredibly painful to a child with autism. When sensory overload occurs, it’s like a build-up of information that a child with autism may struggle to process. Processing the infinite supply of information we receive through our senses is an essential part of being human and failing to do so effectively can be deeply confusing and distressing. As the fight or flight response kicks in, it’s natural for a child experiencing this phenomena to act out, run away, or shut down completely.
There’s no definitive list of all the responses a child may have to sound sensitivity. Every child is unique and yours may exhibit quite different behavior to another child experiencing the same thing. However, there are some common features to look out for. If your child shows any of these signs, especially in an unusually noisy situation, then he/she is likely to be experiencing sound sensitivity.
Signs and symptoms of sound sensitivity in a child with autism:
- A reluctance to visit places with high noise levels, especially ones typically enjoyed by children such as the cinema, a funfair, or concerts. If your child likes to visit quieter places like museums while acting out against trips to the cinemas, then you should consider whether sound sensitivity is the cause
- A keen attention to detail. Does your child point out noises that you didn’t even notice? If he/she is picking up on the tiniest details, then it’s likely to do with an over-processing of sensory information
- Becoming agitated around low, droning sounds. It’s common that a low hum, such as that made by your refrigerator, annoys a child with autism. Note down moments in which he/she starts acting out and list the noises that were present at the time
- Being easily startled. If your child frequently jumps at sudden noises, such as alarms, sirens, and slamming doors, then he/she may be experiencing these sounds more intensely than others do
- Complaining about loud noises. Many children won’t complain when they hear fireworks or a fire engine alarm. If your child does, then ask him/her to explain their problem further. Sound sensitivity is a likely cause
- Reacting to high pitched sounds. Most daily high-pitched sounds shouldn’t cause discomfort. While many children are over-sensitive to low humming noises, other ASD children find high-pitched noises the most irritating
- Becoming easily distracted. For example, a child in a class that he/she normally enjoys may find him/herself becoming distracted when an air conditioning unit is switched on. If you find your child cannot concentrate in scenarios that involve a particular noise, then sound sensitivity is often the cause
- Covering his/her ears. Though this isn’t the response of all ASD children who experience sound sensitivity, it’s common to respond to noise by covering ears. This is the natural response to unpleasant sounds: blocking them at the source. If your child seems to do this even when there are no noticeable loud noises, then consider sound sensitivity as a cause
Do any of the above signs and symptoms sound familiar? Then it’s likely, though not certain, that sound sensitivity is the reason behind such behavior. It’s important to watch your child closely and make a note – either mental or physical – of the situation. Once you start to spot patterns then the cause of such behavior becomes clear. This is the first step needed before you can start finding solutions to these struggles.
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Sound sensitivity solutions for children with autism
There’s no medical cure for sound sensitivity because the causes are not fully understood. However, there are changes you can make to ensure a child’s daily life is as comfortable as possible. If you discover your child is struggling with a hyper-active response to noises, then follow these steps:
- Understand the problem: by reading this article, you’ve done most of the work. It’s impossible to accommodate a child if you don’t understand what he/she is experiencing. While his/her subjective experience is private by nature, you can try to understand what it would be like if you were hyper-aware of every noise and unable to process the information. In doing so, you recognize that his/her response is not bad behavior but rather a normal fight or flight response to over-exposure to unsettling noises
- Carry ear defenders. For many children, in many situations, a pair of ear defenders is enough to cut out the noise to such an extent that they feel calm and comfortable. Ideally, carry these at all times but it’s particularly important to do so in public situations. Even if not at a concert or firework display, a busy restaurant could trigger a response so always have ear defenders ready
- Be more careful with your words. In essence, words are just noises. Be precise with your speech, using as few words as possible to make your point clearly or give an instruction that can be understood. Leave pauses between words and sentences to limit the chance of a child being overwhelmed by your vocalisations
- Create quiet sanctuaries. Your child’s anxiety levels will be lowered if he/she knows they have a safe place to retreat to. This will be the place where he/she can concentrate and calm down. Just having the space available is often enough to calm a child’s nerves in a noisy situation, even if the child doesn’t end up using it
- Use a therapist. Multiple forms of intervention exist, including exposure therapy, Listening Therapy, desensitization and various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy. A therapist can help you decide the best treatment approach and or if treatment for sound sensitivity is indicated.
With this information, you should now understand what noise sensitivity is, what might cause it, the signs that it’s happening, and some potential solutions. This should help to make life for you and your ASD child a little more comfortable and joyous.