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Covering Ears and Autism: Understanding Sensory Sensitivities

April 26, 2024

When you are in a loud place, do you cover your ears to try to muffle the sound? Covering your ears can make a loud place more bearable. For children with autism, the need to cover their ears may be more prevalent as places that don’t seem loud to neurotypical people may sound loud to them.

Children with autism are more inclined to experience sensory sensitivities, especially when it comes to sounds. Covering their ears can help them avoid sensory overload when a room is too loud for their liking.

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Understanding the reasons behind covering ears

There may be many reasons why autistic children cover their ears. These can include:

  • sensory overload,
  • discomfort caused by certain sounds,
  • self-soothing behaviors.

Sensory overload

When an autistic child is experiencing too much sensory input, it can lead to sensory overload. This is common when the child is experiencing increased auditory sensory input. Covering their ears may serve as a way to block out some of the sounds.

Discomfort

For autistic children who are hypersensitive to sound, it can lead to pain or discomfort when the sounds become too loud for them. Children with autism may cover their ears to assist with sensory avoidance. Muffling the sound can help reduce the pain and discomfort.

Self-soothing

Some children with autism may cover their ears as part of a self-soothing behavior, also called stimming. It can be a behavioral tic they pick up when they are young, even if they aren’t experiencing pain, discomfort, or sensory overload.

There are times when my son will cover his ears even when everything is quiet. In those times, I know it’s not painful or sensory, so it must be a stim.

A young boy covering his ears https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/covering-ears-autism/

How to manage these behaviors

Parents who see their children covering their ears will want to learn what’s causing the action so they can prevent it or make things easier when the situations arise. Some of the best ways include:

  • identifying triggers,
  • providing a safe space,
  • use visual aids or social stories,
  • experiment with sensory input,
  • occupational therapy.

Parents, caregivers, and even teachers can implement these strategies to help children with autism when they need to cover their ears.

Identifying triggers

My younger son often covers his ears due to sensory overload and discomfort. He is hypersensitive to sound and becomes overwhelmed easily. One of the biggest triggers for him is public washrooms.

Many of them, at least in the United States, echo. These echoes trigger his sensory issues. He will fight us to ensure he doesn’t have to go into a public washroom if he recognizes the room for what it is.

It took us a while to figure out why he was so adamant about avoiding these rooms until I was able to bring him in one time. He was okay once we were inside until the automatic hand dryer went off.

The sound sent him into a full-blown meltdown. That’s when I realized he avoided the room because the sounds were too much for him. From then on, my wife and I have taken steps to help protect him from this trigger.

Provide a safe space

Once we knew the issue, we had to find a way to make things easier for our son. We started with noise-canceling headphones. Taking these ear defenders with us so we can put them on him when we know a room will echo has made visits to public washrooms a little easier.

We also use noise-canceling headphones in public transportation terminals, like buses and subways, and at the aquarium near our house to help ensure the sounds don’t become overwhelming.


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Many autistic children process sound differently, so quiet spaces and quiet hours can come in handy for providing a safe space. Some stores offer quiet hours that make it easier to go shopping with an autistic child.

Many places, like public libraries, also provide quiet spaces so autistic children can experience them without too many sensory stimuli.

Use visual aids or social stories

If you have to take your child to a place where sound can potentially be overwhelming, using visual aids or social stories can help them prepare for what they may experience. Visual aids can help autistic kids recognize when background noise may be too loud or when they may hear an unpleasant noise.

Social stories can help explain what they need to do to prepare for an unpleasant or loud background noise before they lose control of their emotions.

Experiment with sensory input

While noises can cause some issues for autistic children, there are still some they will enjoy. Parents should experiment with sensory input to figure out what sounds their children may prefer.

My son loves almost all music. While he’s often the child with autism covering his ears, when music is on, he can enjoy it at almost any decibel level and not lose control.

Occupational therapy

If your autistic children are sensitive enough to sound, they may need occupational therapy. Occupational therapists can design programs to help identify how and why they are so sensitive and if the triggers come from the environment or elsewhere.

Using this sensory information, parents will be better able to help their children without needing to cover their ears.

Navigating autism and covering ears with understanding

Autistic children covering their ears is one of the easier issues to address. It’s up to parents to find the triggers and help make life better for them. Most of the time, it’s a sign that something is bothering them, and we must figure out the problem and how to help.

Mother comforting her son
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/covering-ears-autism/

Each child is different, so what works for my son may not work for your children. Still, it’s up to parents and caregivers to work together to ensure autistic children get the support needed to meet these sensory challenges.

FAQs

Q: Is covering ears a sign of autism?

A: While anyone may need to cover their ears when noise is too loud, covering ears is a sign of a potential sensory processing disorder connected to autism.

Q: Why do autistic children cover their ears?

A: Autistic children may find certain sounds distressing. They will cover their ears to block out these sounds.

Q: What helps calm down an autistic child?

A: Providing a safe space can help autistic children when they are overwhelmed by sensory features. These can include quiet spaces or providing noise-canceling headphones if the child is having issues with sound.

Q: How do you create a sensory-friendly environment at home?

A: Experts recommend that parents use neutral lighting, quieter sounds, and less clutter to make their homes a more sensory-friendly environment.

References:

Shireen M. Kanakri, Mardelle Shepley, James W. Varni, Louis G. Tassinary, Noise and autism spectrum disorder in children: An exploratory survey, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Volume 63, 2017, Pages 85-94, ISSN 0891-4222, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2017.02.004.

Stiegler, L. N., & Davis, R. (2010). Understanding Sound Sensitivity in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(2), 67-75.

Zachary J. Williams, Jason L. He, Carissa J. Cascio, Tiffany G. Woynaroski, A review of decreased sound tolerance in autism: Definitions, phenomenology, and potential mechanisms, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 121, 2021, Pages 1-17, ISSN 0149-7634, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.11.030

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