The joys of parenthood include the sheer delight that comes with finding something that helps our children through a particular struggle. For many children with autism, the challenges can be fierce, and often include sensory difficulties. Choosing autism noise canceling headphones can result in relief for our children, and also excitement of finding something that returns a peaceful smile to our child’s face.
Certain sounds may be physically painful for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Others may find certain therapeutic sounds soothing, but they need to enjoy them without disturbing others.
For parents of children with sensory needs, choosing premium headphones can be overwhelming. In this article, we will dive into the world of wearing headphones, why they can be good for extremely sensitive ears, and how to choose the best headphones for your autistic child’s ears.
What are the benefits of noise canceling headphones for autism?
According to one study: Unusual responses to sensory stimuli are experienced by up to 90% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). Although it is unclear as to whether sensory processing difficulties are a trait of ASD or a trait of comorbid disorders (Landon et al., 2016), behavioral responses to sensory stimuli have become so prevalent, that the most recent criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-V) for ASD added a diagnostic component of hyper- and hypo- reactivity to sensory stimuli (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
The outside world can often be a noisy place, it is common for children on the autism spectrum to have sensory overload due to too loud or too much noise. Children on the autism spectrum may also be sensory seeking. These children may want to lessen background noise, and listen to specific sounds instead when in noisy places.
If an autistic person deals with noise sensitivity, noise canceling or reducing headphones may be able to help. The type of headphones your child needs really has a lot to do with what they would use them for and when.
Some people use headphones to block noise so they can reduce stimulation from the sound around them. Some people need to use them to play sounds that help them relax while muting the sound around them.
Sound quality matters when choosing the right noise canceling or noise reducing products. Finding a product that does a great job while protecting the ears is essential. For autistic adults and children alike, finding the best noise canceling or noise reducing headphones can improve their quality of life.
They may aid in allowing autistic adults or children to:
- sleep better
- feel more at ease in busy or loud places
- be able to take a break from sound induced sensory overload
- enable them to calm down with relaxing music or other therapeutic sound
- help them maintain focus by blocking distracting sounds around them
- provide distracting sound without disturbing others
Many autistic adults who have been using noise reduction headphones for a long time have discovered that both noise canceling headphones and noise reduction headphones are helpful for different situations. Autistic adults may be able to provide valuable information in this area to parents of children on the autism spectrum, ASD, or with sensory processing disorder.
What is the difference between active noise cancellation and passive noise isolation?
When considering noise cancellation requirements, it is important to note the differences between active noise cancellation (ANC) headphones and passive noise isolation (PNI) headphones. Though their basic purpose is the same, the way they function is very different.
ANC headphones: Active noise canceling headphones cancel out ambient noise by creating equal but opposite noise. ANC Headphones that do a good job, will make playing music like a surround sound experience while protecting the ears by making actual volume less important. The only ANC headphones that exist are electronic, and as such, require a power source.
PNI headphones: Essentially, PNI headphones mold to your personal ear to block out ambient noise and allow you to listen to music at a lower volume than you would with other headphones. All headphones have some PNI, but the ones that fit your ear in a customized way are better.
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Are noise canceling headphones good for autistic children?
I believe the best way to answer this question is to go to the source. So, recently I sat down with Jonas Goddard.
He is a 13-year-old autistic child who uses noise canceling headphones. He has years of experience with them and has used them in many situations.
He shared his tips with me, as well as his wealth of knowledge on the subject of noise canceling headphones for autism. He also shared his personal recommendations based on his preferred brand and model.
*Photo credit: Jonas Goddard.
Q. Jonas, what led you and your family to using noise canceling headphones?
A. To relax and not be overwhelmed.
Q. How old were you when you first started using noise canceling headphones?
A. Around nine, I think.
Q. What did it feel like to wear them for the first time?
A. It was definitely cool and relaxing, for example when I first used the AirPods Pro it even got rid of the distracting sound coming from the fan. It made me feel relieved from stress too.
Q. What kind of noise canceling headphones do you wear now?
A. Well it would be my AirPods pro, but they broke. I might get them fixed or get something else.
Q. What would you say to a parent who is deciding whether or not to purchase noise canceling headphones for their child?
A. Maybe try out someone else’s and ask them how they feel about using them and if they would be helpful to them or not.
Q. Do you use headphones while you sleep?
A. No, headphones or earbuds don’t feel good when I am sleeping.
Q. What kinds of environments do you use your noise canceling headphones in the most?
A. Busy places or at a party if I don’t know anyone there. And at home if I just want to relax.
Q. What would be a reason for you not to use noise cancellation?
A. If people need to talk to you a lot. I’m not sure.
Q. Do you prefer over the ear headphones, on ear, or in-earbuds? Why?
A. Over the ear headphones are more for if I am sitting around or if I’m playing a video game. And earbuds if I’m walking outside or walking in general I guess.
AirPods Pro has a thing where you can click a button on them and it will switch between noise canceling and a mode where it uses the microphone for you to hear what’s around you. I guess, like hearing aids for that mode.
Q. Do you prefer wireless? Why?
A. I like wired over the head headphones and wireless earbuds. Because I don’t walk around with my over the head phones and the sound is better sometimes. And wireless earbuds for the freedom to walk around.
Q. What specific noise canceling headphones would you recommend as a good pair and why?
A. AirPods Pro is the best I have used. They have a button on the side of them where you can switch between noise canceling and hearing mode. And you can listen to music if you want and they are comfortable. If you have a Samsung or Android I think there might be earbuds like the AirPods Pro, but I am not sure.
What are some downsides to wearing noise canceling headphones?
“Owen…Owen…O-WEN!” my voice rose higher with each time I called his name. I was basically yelling by the time he finally answered me.
We were in the drive thru of a local restaurant, and a member of staff was trying to take our order. “What would you like to eat?”
Getting the wrong food under these circumstances is a risky business. He might be ecstatic, or he might have a meltdown for the next 45 minutes, even after I replace it with the right order.
I looked at the person waiting to enter our menu selections, “Earphones, they are a blessing and a curse,” I said wryly. They giggled as Owen’s voice finally drifted to me from the back seat, “I want chicken, and fries please.” He was completely oblivious to my panic.
One of the biggest downsides of noise canceling headphones is literally in the name. Sometimes we need to hear what is going on around us for safety or for necessary interaction with others. For instance, a child wearing headphones may not notice the sound of their parent or teacher yelling -I mean- talking to them.
While some people may find interacting with others easier while using noise reduction headphones; even autistic adults may be perceived as less approachable by a friend or potential friend if their headphones are present.
Fortunately, these days most people, even movie stars, wear headphones often for one reason or another. Raising awareness, representation in the media, and understanding can really go a long way to helping others make accommodations for those wearing headphones.
How can I choose the right headphones for my child’s ears?
There are many things to consider when choosing headphones for your child. Here are a few:
- over ear headphones
- on ear headphones
- wireless headphones
- ear plugs
- sound quality
- noise reduction rating
- battery life
- ambient noise
- sleep headphones
- sensory overload vs sensory seeking
- easy access
- cheap pair vs expensive
- age of the child
- sound quality
We will spend the next little while discussing these aspects, and I will recommend headphones according to each. Also, I would like you to keep in mind, Autism Parenting Magazine is not affiliated with any of the specific brands of headphones discussed here, nor have they tested them.
Any links or products shared are simply based on ratings by outside sources. Any personal recommendations that have been tested by my family or Jonas will be clearly marked as such, and are not shared with affiliate links.
Why over ear headphones?
- they can feel more secure
- adjustable headband
- super soft padding
- younger children may find these easier to keep up with
- sound quality may be better
- they can be hot on the head
- may contribute to a claustrophobic feeling
- not as easy to remove to hear outside things
- can feel a bit bulky
Suggested products in this category
I personally own these Dr. Dre Beats headphones. They are a very popular, highly rated brand. They have a padded headband and their noise canceling capabilities are top-notch. Their “like butter” materials make them very comfortable headphones.
Why in-ear headphones?
- easy to remove one if you need to hear outside sound for a bit (a parent’s instructions)
- they are cooler and less bulky on the head
- may be more comfortable for sleep headphones
- small and inconspicuous
- can be uncomfortable if they lack sufficient padding
- may be harder to sleep in
- may fall out/get lost easier
- may not be the best option for small children
Suggested products in this category
These earbuds are both wired and wireless headphones in one. They have the freedom of a wireless, with the convenience of a wire around your neck for easy removal without the constraints of putting them down somewhere where they may get lost.
These earbuds have great reviews and a great price. They are reported to be comfortable, and have a long battery life of 30 hours! They also include a charging case.
Wireless vs wired, what are the perks?
I’ll outline some of the benefits of wireless products below.
- freedom of not being attached
- in general, wireless headphone options are higher rated canceling headphones
- more sleeping options
- often have a charging case available
- less dependent on kind of device paired (wires must plug in, newer technology may not have the matching port)
- dependent upon battery life
- may be dependant on bluetooth technology
- can be more pricey
Suggested products in this category
The classic airpods can be a good option in this case. The capabilities are extensive. Though they are a bit more pricey, they are on the more affordable side, especially for all they can do.
These headphones by Logitech could be a great option for autistic adults in their workspace. My husband actually uses these and loves them for his job.
One thing to note about these is that even the person you are talking to won’t notice the sounds around you. They are actually pretty amazing.
For example, a spouse who has autism may be encouraged by the ability to talk to their husband or wife without being distracted by the sounds of children or work-related sounds in the background of their loved one.
What about noise canceling ear plugs A.K.A. ear defenders?
Choosing this type of ear plugs really can be a great alternative. The noise reduction rating (NRR)can assist in the decision. The higher the NRR, the more sound is reduced. The highest noise reduction rate is 33 for ear plugs. Combining ear defenders with ear muffs or ear cups can provide a possible reduction rate of 36.
- great for kids and adults alike
- can be less pricey
- great sleep headphones
- not reliant on battery life
- easy to remove one to hear outside sounds
- can be combined with over ear cups or other over ear protection
- can’t be used alone for listening to music or other sounds
Suggested products in this category
Here are some ideas for adults.
Here you can find some suggestions for kids.
Why noise reduction instead of noise canceling headphones?
- reduce background noise, not cancel it out
- allow us to hear loud noises at a safer volume
- better for classroom settings making it easier to hear teacher etc
- safer sleep headphones
- not always sufficient for loud environments
- doesn’t cancel as much sound
Suggested products in this category
This company Flare Audio has many different options for this category.
This over the ear pair boasts long battery life, comfortable ergonomic design, and reviews are good.
Cheap vs expensive, what’s the deal?
Often, not always, you get what you pay for when shopping for electronics. Some of the more expensive brands may have more luxurious materials or higher technology capabilities.
Keep in mind that some HSA, FSA, and special needs scholarship funds can be used to purchase headphones under the right qualifications.
Buying expensive headphones may not be necessary, for one. You may not need all the “bells and whistles”. Many times simple is best and just as effective.
Two, depending on who you are shopping for, they may end up broken or misplaced resulting in a repurchase. In this case, a less expensive pair might be the way to go.
Should headphones be used for small children?
Sometimes younger children have a harder time with headphones. Depending on the kind, they may find them uncomfortable, easier to lose, or just not take care of them as well as older children might.
There are some brands that are specifically made for younger kids. I will link some higher-rated ones here. They are reasonably priced and come in a variety of colors.
These are actually used by my seven-year-old son and have held up to lots of abuse for two years (including being thrown across the room during a meltdown!). They can be used as wireless or wired, have a long battery life and affordable price. They would be a great option to be used in combination with earplugs to extend their outside noise reducing power.
Is there any additional information?
I highly suggest utilizing websites that list ratings by buyers and users on what they consider the best headphones and why, such as Amazon, Best Buy, Target, etc. Just make sure you always check for the return policies, as you may need to try different ones out till you land on the best headphones for your child.
Also, YouTube can be a wonderful rabbit hole to travel down. There are many people doing unboxing and reviewing noise canceling headphones. YouTube can be a great way to find out which noise canceling headphones out there are cheap-pair dupes for the more expensive sets.
If you are worried about your child’s use of headphones in the classroom, bear in mind, this need can be accommodated in a 504 plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Autistic adults in the US can also legally use headphones in the workplace under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Noise canceling headphones can help some autistic children as well as autistic adults. Other children with sensory processing disorder and other sensory needs may benefit from them as well.
Choosing the best headphones for your child doesn’t have to be overwhelming. On the contrary, meeting your child’s needs and reducing frustration can be a fun and extremely rewarding endeavor.
I hope this article has been of some assistance. I wish you luck as you pursue the happiness and wellbeing of your child and family!
American Psychiatric Association (2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM 5. 5th Edn. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
Landon J., Shepherd D., Lodhia V. (2016). A qualitative study of noise sensitivity in adults with autism spectrum disorder. Res. Autism Spectr. Disord. 32, 43–52. 10.1016/j.rasd.2016.08.005
Pfeiffer, B., Stein Duker, L., Murphy, A., & Shui, C. (2019). Effectiveness of Noise-Attenuating Headphones on Physiological Responses for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 13, 65. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2019.00065