Three-year-old Jack was playing, happily lining up all his cars in a row, when his baby sister Josephine woke up from her nap, and started crying loudly. Suddenly, Jack felt extremely overwhelmed, panic took over, and anger towards his sister made him feel out of control. He needed to get away, but there was nowhere to go.
As his mom came rushing over to pick up the baby, Jack started crying, screaming, rocking back and forth, and holding his ears tightly with his hands. He couldn’t think of anything but the baby’s cries.
He couldn’t focus on his cars. He couldn’t even be distracted with his favorite movie. Soon, his screams were louder than his sister’s.
This story is an example of what can happen when a child experiences something called misophonia. In this article we will explore misophonia, autism, and how they work together.
We will also discuss things we as parents can do to help our children manage their misophonia, and the toll it can take on their lives.
What is misophonia?
Sensory modulation disorders are a group of conditions characterized by sensory over responsivity. It is a type of sensory processing disorder (SPD). A person with sensory modulation disorder will have auditory over responsivity. Misophonia is one of these sensory issues.
A person with misophonia may have sensory based motor disorders, making it hard for their brain and body to know what to do when triggered. Their extreme reaction would be due to their body not knowing how to respond to fight or flight response. This can cause them to react to certain noises in a way that seems extreme to others, especially in comparison with the noise itself.
Misophonia, put simply, is an extreme reaction to certain noises. No one likes the sound of a baby crying. However, people who have misophonia may find something like a baby’s cry intolerable and overwhelmingly distracting, causing them to freak out in the extreme.
That being said, there are other noises that can be misophonic triggers. One child may respond to the sensory stimuli of a baby’s cry in a completely typical manner, but the noise of a hair dryer can cause emotional distress.
A person with misophonia when triggered will often have an auditory over responsivity causing them to react in the extreme. Reactions can include:
- extreme anger
- covering their ears
- feeling overwhelmed
- having a desire to run away
- may use excessive force or violence towards others
- melting down
Here are some kinds of noises that may trigger someone with misophonia:
- Loud noises
- repetitive noises
- too many noises happening at once
- shrill noises
Of course this list is not exhaustive, but it gives an idea.
Many times people are completely unaware their child will struggle with a noise simply because they have never been exposed to it before. One event that could prove triggering is a sports game. If a child has never attended one before, it could present several triggering noises. Being as prepared as possible for surprises can help.
How does someone develop misophonia?
According to one study called, Misophonia and Potential Underlying Mechanisms: A Perspective (Devon B. Palumbo, et al), misophonia “develops as a physical reflex through classical conditioning with a misophonia trigger (e.g., eating noises, lip-smacking, pen clicking, tapping and typing …) as the conditioned stimulus, and anger, irritation or stress the unconditioned stimulus.”
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Misophonia can start in early childhood, as a result of a neurodevelopmental disorder, or can happen at other times in life. It can be present in neurotypical, and neurodivergent people. Some believe it is a conditioned behavior, others disagree. Our understanding of misophonia is continuously evolving.
Sensory processing disorder can heavily influence a person’s ability to display misophonia. It can be present in a psychiatric disorder, neurodevelopmental disorder, and other mental disorders.
Some people start to experience misophonia following a traumatic event. Trauma can have lasting effects on the brain. As brain activity is changed, the body’s response to stimuli also changes.
When a person is traumatized, specific noises that remind them of the trauma can trigger misophonia. These noises could also be related to a specific person the brain now associates with a sound. For example, the sound of a door opening, or a sequence of sounds afterwards, could send the brain into auditory responsivity, and activate a fight or flight response if those noises preceded abuse or trauma from a person in the past.
It is worth noting, however, that just because someone has misophonia, that does not mean they have indeed experienced trauma. In fact, the addition of trauma onto the list of possible causes of misophonia is controversial. Yet, some people have reported personal instances of misophonia directly related to their own trauma. The key is to look at each case individually.
We don’t need to go chasing history to see if we can identify trauma in our children. The thing to keep in mind is, if our child has experienced a trauma, or comes from a traumatic background (one example I can think of is a child coming out of foster care), it can be a heads-up for parents that misophonia could be a complication of healing from the trauma they may have experienced.
As we get older, the possibility of developing misophonia increases. With years and experiences, come associations with sound. Our ability to not lose control because of them really depends upon our ability to remain calm under pressure.
A child hasn’t yet developed the skills to manage those kinds of triggers. If that child is already challenged in certain situations or social skills, because of something like autism, their ability to withstand triggering noises can be reduced.
What is misophonia autism?
Misophonia autism is not an official term but it basically means that an autistic person happens to also have misophonia. People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often also experience sensory processing disorder. Misophonia is a common partner with autism, but they are not mutually exclusive.
What are the effects of misophonia on a child with autism?
When someone reacts to “normal sounds” in an “extreme way”, it can affect their ability to function in everyday situations. Sensory issues can inhibit social skills, and damage relationships with friends and family. The challenges autism can bring to someone can be greatly compounded by misophonia. Misophonia, autism, and their combined challenges can be difficult to manage.
What are some tips to manage misophonia?
Misophonia is part of selective sound sensitivity. It doesn’t manifest with all noises, just certain ones. So, the first step to manage misophonia is to identify which specific sounds, or kinds of sound, bother your child. Once identified the next step can be to gather a plethora of resources that can help you avoid triggers, and manage misophonia.
Some sounds can be avoided, many cannot. Obviously, if you can prevent the sound, do it.
In the case of Jack and Josephine, a new baby sister will inevitably cry. Therefore, the trigger could not be avoided. In this instance, it would be necessary to find ways to cope.
Another way to avoid misophonia symptoms would be to make sure you are eliminating other sensory issues that can compound the problem. SPD can affect a child’s ability to handle tactile stimuli.
Just as one example: a child with SPD who has a tag in their clothing making it impossible for them to focus, is going to be at the mercy of their misophonia, because now it is combined with the sensory over responsivity of the feeling of the tag.
Removing the tag before the child is exposed to possible triggers can better set them up for success.
One way to help is to employ the use of noise canceling, noise muffling, or noise providing earphones. Especially in the kind of situation Jack and his family found themselves. When a triggering noise is repeated throughout the day and is out of a person’s control, earphones that muffle noises throughout the day, but still allow the person to hear, can go a long way.
Some children prefer to have noise replacement. In these cases, using headphones to play soothing music, or white noise can be a go-to solution, when they find themselves in triggering situations.
One of the best pieces of advice that I was given in my quest to learn about managing sensory discrimination disorders was to develop a plan, before the trigger occurs. For instance, if a child knows in advance that they can access their headphones, or have a special place to go in case they need to be away from the noise, they are better equipped when it happens. This can also reduce the stress they feel when triggered, and help detour behaviors that can cause negative outcomes.
Speaking of reducing stress, as a parent, I identify with the idea that being stressed out can make anything I find mildly irritating on a regular basis that much more annoying. Sensory systems can be overloaded and just not be able to take anymore stimuli. This can make us respond in ways we may regret later.
Reducing stress in your child’s life can help them manage their misophonia. Besides what I have already mentioned above, some things you can provide to help reduce stress in your child’s day can also include; making sure they get enough sleep and exercise.
Misophonia, autism, and their combined effects can cause added stress to a child who is already struggling. For example, an autistic child who is in a social situation in which they are already uncomfortable, may experience sensory over responsivity, and be unable to handle the situation as a whole. In other words, the triggering noise will be extra triggering.
Misophonia, autism, and their list of challenges may go hand in hand. The good news is the solutions and helpful tips that help alleviate the challenges of one, can, by extension, help the other.
Working with a therapist can help some people work through their aversion to noises, as well as learn what to do when they are triggered. Learning new social skills, and coping mechanisms that can help a child with autism spectrum disorder be more comfortable in social situations, can also reduce the extreme feelings they may have when triggered by a noise.
Parents and children alike can be caught off guard by an extreme reaction to noises. Though misophonia, autism, and their combined challenges can be overwhelming, there are things you can do to manage. I hope you have found this article helpful, and that it encouraged you in some way.
Cavanna, A. E., & Seri, S. (2015). Misophonia: current perspectives. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 11, 2117–2123. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S81438Palumbo, D. B., Alsalman, O., De Ridder, D., Song, J. J., & Vanneste, S. (2018). Misophonia and Potential Underlying Mechanisms: A Perspective. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 953. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00953