It’s quite common for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be oversensitive or under-sensitive to noise, light, or temperature. Most children don’t have a hard time outgrowing sensory sensitivities, but they tend to last for a longer period of time in children with ASD. Noise sensitivity, the condition in which children have hypersensitivity to sound is called hyperacusis. Even the simplest of sounds can frighten children suffering from this condition. Sounds like the flush of a toilet, vacuum cleaners, fire alarms, etc can all easily cause children to become petrified and anxious. More than 1 percent of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and 5 – 16 percent of children have sensory processing difficulties. Eleven percent of children in the U.S. are said to have ADHD, which is increasingly seen as belonging on the spectrum.
Simons Simplex Collection Project & Sensory Dysfunction by Drs. Rogers and Ozonoff
In an autism research project called Simons Simplex Collection, it was observed that around 65 percent of the children who took part in the project were sensitive to noise. It’s hard for researchers to be more specific about this problem because kids with autism generally suffer from sensitivity to not just noise, but other sensations too. Sally J. Rogers and Sally Ozonoff, two very renowned researchers in the field of autism, studied 75 research papers and found more proof that showed that children with autism also suffer from oversensitivity/undersensitivity. The results, however, still largely remained inconclusive because the papers they studied used different methods and used different scientific standards. However, lots of other papers have been published over the years that have improved our understanding of what Drs. Rogers and Ozonoff termed (in their paper published in the year 2005 in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry) “sensory dysfunction”.
Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensitivity to loud noises is common in children with SDP, or Sensory Processing Disorder. Two of my sons get pretty anxious if they hear airplanes flying overhead, swarms of bugs buzzing outside or if I’m using almost any kind of home appliance. It’s funny because these particular sons are seven years apart, but they are very much alike in this way.
Their anxiety is noticeable because the baby, as this writing 1.5 years old, will turn his face to the noise and cover his ears with his hands, or point to where the noise is coming from or simply start crying until the noise has subsided. My older son, now eight years old, has mellowed out about this a bit but will comment about how the crickets are bothering him and will try to get far away from any bothersome sounds. When we moved out of the city he couldn’t get over the lack of noise from the busses and car horns.
Symptoms to Watch Out for
There are lots of ways for this to manifest itself. Thankfully I kind of pieced it together with my older son and recognized it in the younger, but it can be a bit of a mystery, especially if the child doesn’t even know what the problem is or can’t articulate it.
So look for some symptoms in your little one. Here are some to watch out for:
- Anger or rage
- Covering ears
- Shutting down or refusing to interact
- Difficulty focusing
It’s also not uncommon for a child with noise sensitivity to be a very loud child some or most of the time. These children have brains that are wired differently than those of their neuro-typical counterparts and their behavior may not always make a ton of sense to you, but it’s a good idea to try not to take their behavior personally. Usually, children aren’t trying to drive their parents crazy, especially if the child has sensitivity.
The Auditory System and Different Experiments
Scientists have studied the auditory system in order to better understand this problem. They have employed different methods to see if people with autism process or hear sound differently. Methods like parent surveys, skin conductance tests, hearing exams and brain scans have been used in the past to understand how kids with autism process sound. For example, a couple of British scientists found out that most teens with ASD aren’t actually that different in terms of having the ability to distinguish between sounds than neurotypical teenagers.
However, when the teens with ASD were divided into subgroups, scientists found that some of them had a hard time determining the loudness of the sound, while some seemed to have an excellent pitch. Teens who had trouble telling how loud the sound was, were also discovered to have a problem coping with noise in their everyday life. This was examined in a paper published by a couple of researchers in the year 2009 in the journal Neuropsychologia. Scientists also found out, through tests, that children with ASD whose hearing is fine might still have a problem performing well on hearing tests that require behavioral responses. The results were published in a paper by 6 researchers in the year 2006 in Ear and Hearing.
How you can Help Children
- Be More Considerate of your Child’s Problem
The easiest way to help children like this is to be accommodating. Doing your vacuuming when your child isn’t home, for example. But of course, this isn’t always practical or possible. Unless you have good friends in high places, you can’t control when and where the airplanes are going to be flying overhead, and even if you live in the countryside away from busses, the bugs may make life just as difficult for your loved one.
- Create a Quiet Space for Your Children
Have a quiet space for your child to go to when he needs. This could be a bean bag chair in his room, next to a lamp and a bookshelf or just the understanding that when he becomes overwhelmed by noises, he can excuse himself and go to his room.
- Make the Teachers Understand your Child’s Condition
Have a talk with your child’s teacher and principal. They should know that everyday occurrences like the noise in the cafeteria or the bouncing basketball on the pavement at recess can cause a meltdown. Hopefully, they will be understanding and offer the quiet of the school library or the principal’s office to cool down for a few minutes.
Most children spend much of their waking hours at school so it’s crucial that the school staff knows as much about your child as possible.
- Let your Children have Fun with Some Noise of their Own
A child that is terrified of loud sounds can try fighting the noise with her own “noisy party.” Bring out the pots and pans and let her see that she can be just as fierce. Or buy some children’s instruments and let her go to town.
- Don’t Go When it’s Too Crowded
If you’re going somewhere new, try to go at a quiet time. Places like the mall, restaurants, and even outdoor spots like zoos and parks can be unbearable at peak times for kids with noise sensitivity.
- Use Ear Plugs to Block Out Unwanted Noise
Have your child try out earplugs to see if they help in loud situations. Ear plugs are great because they’re small enough to be carried easily to school or anywhere else.
My lifelong love of nutrition has led me to believe that we are probably most affected in our lives by what we put into our bodies. I believe that this is no different for children with noise sensitivities. Studies say that noise sensitivities may be connected to a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium coats nerve endings, making a barrier between nerves and exterior surroundings. If your child has a magnesium deficiency, it would make sense for her to be irritated by all of the noises around her as the nerves in her ears are literally totally exposed. Magnesium deficiency may also be a contributing factor to tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.
Diets high in refined salt may cause low magnesium. The best sources of magnesium are dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, avocados and dairy products. Magnesium works best when its best friend calcium is present, so a lot of the foods high in magnesium are high in calcium as well. Magnesium is actually low among most Westerners, giving all of us a good reason to eat more leafy greens – no less than half a pound – every day.
I’m talking about children here, so I realize that eating so many veggies in a day – especially green leafies – can be a daunting task. And I hope to write about picky eaters in the future, as I sure am familiar with them! If your child doesn’t like green leafy vegetables mask them in other foods, such as smoothies. A simple smoothie with coconut milk, green leaves and a couple of bananas is amazingly nutritious and lots of kids can handle it.
Vitamins and Supplements
Vitamin B6 may also be low in a sound-sensitive child. All of the ten B vitamins are crucial for properly functioning nerves. It’s a good idea to ask your pediatrician or family doctor for some blood tests to determine exactly where he stands, especially if you want to supplement.
Refined sugars and grains deplete all of these crucial nutrients from the body as do whole grains when they are not prepared correctly. Traditional cultures had knowledge of this and would always prepare their beans and grains by soaking and fermenting them before cooking them. Refining oils removes the magnesium, for instance, from sunflower seed oil.
Survey by Interactive Autism Network and Therapy
Children with noise sensitivities often find themselves in dangerous situations. According to a survey done by Interactive Autism Network (IAN), many of the children who were part of the survey tried to hurt themselves or the people around them. Over 40 percent of the children tried to run away and some of the children tried to hide. While most parents believe earbuds or headphones usually help children block out any unnecessary loud noise, researchers are hoping that with all the data we have collected over the past years, we might be able to come up with devices that will “relieve sound sensitivity and the pain that goes along with it”. Therapy can also prove to be beneficial for kids with noise sensitivity. Occupational therapists have been working with speech-language pathologists and behavior analysts for years to help autistic children suffering from hyperacusis.
I have concentrated on noise sensitivity in this post but kids with these disorders can have other sensitivities as well, including sensitivities to certain textures, tastes, bright colors, smells, sense of balance, movement, temperature, and pain. I hope to do in-depth posts on these sensitivities in the future.
How do you help your child if he or she has a sensitivity to noise? I would appreciate you leaving a comment below!
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