If you’re looking strategies and products that help with autism and noise sensitivity, you’ve come to the right place.
While no two children with autism are the same, and the range and intensity of symptoms varies from person to person, certain characteristics tend to stand out when interacting with children on the autism spectrum. Communication challenges, an inability to express emotions and understand the emotions of others, difficulty with transitions, poor impulse control, and problems with self-regulation are all common struggles for kids on the spectrum.
Autism and noise sensitivity is also quite common.
Our auditory system is responsible not only for enabling us to receive auditory input from our environment, but it also helps us to recognize which sounds are important (the sound of mom calling your name), which ones keep us safe (fire alarms), and which ones we should ignore (the hum of the fridge).
Many children with autism have a comorbid sensory processing disorder diagnosis, which can manifest itself in many different ways. They may avoid certain sensory experiences, or they may seek them out wherever possible. For example, kids who are hypersensitive to noise are often seen covering their ears as they find crowded places like supermarkets and malls extremely overwhelming. These children have difficulty blocking out noises you and I might not even notice, like the hum of the refrigerator or the ticking of an alarm clock, and things like nail cutting and haircuts can be excruciating for them.
On the flip side, children who are hyposensitive to noise may prefer to be in loud settings and try to create noise whenever possible. They might slam doors, play with loud toys, and make noises with their throat and mouth.
To complicate things further, every child experiences the symptoms of autism and sensory processing disorder differently, and the coping strategies that work for one child may not work for another. It can often feel like parents and caregivers are playing a guessing game, but it’s amazing what a little patience and perseverance can accomplish!
7 Tips to Help a Child with Autism and Noise Sensitivity
1. Don’t avoid noise. As tempting as it is to protect our children from all of the things that cause them anxiety, it is our job as their parents and caregivers to give them the tools they need to cope with the world around them. So rather than avoiding overwhelming situations, we must find ways to make them less stressful instead. Allowing your child to live in a bubble isn’t going to do him or her any favors, and while it may make YOUR life easier in the short-term, your ultimate goal is to help your child become independent. The more you practice, the easier things will get, so roll up your sleeves and be prepared to put in a little elbow grease!
2. Figure out your child’s triggers. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that avoidance is NOT a good strategy when it comes to autism and noise sensitivity, the first thing you want to do is figure out which sounds your child struggles with. I suggest tracking his or her behavior over the course of a few weeks using an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Chart, or ABC Chart. It’s incredibly easy to create and use, and can be very powerful in determining the root cause of challenging behaviors.
Each time your child shows signs of noise anxiety, like covering his or her ears, engaging in avoidance behaviors, becoming agitated or upset, or even having a complete sensory meltdown, take a few minutes to write down the ABCs of that specific event and the behaviors that occurred:
Antecedent: The events that occurred before the behavior happened.
Behavior: Your child’s response to the antecedent.
Consequence: What happened after the behavior to either encourage/hinder a repeat of the situation.
The idea is to track the same behavior – in this case, sensitivity to sound – multiple times to determine if there are any consistencies, and then formulate a plan to change the antecedent and/or consequence to ensure the poor behavior stops happening. You can also use this tool for behavioral challenges to determine if the antecedent and/or consequence is out of your child’s control or if your child is just being a kid and acting out.
3. Proceed with caution. Once you’ve figured out the reasons behind autism and noise sensitivity as it relates to your child, be careful not to take on too much too soon. The last thing you want to do is completely overwhelm his or her senses. Pick one fear-producing sound to work on first, and find ways to explain and introduce it slowly in a non-threatening way.
4. Give warnings. A great way to help reduce noise anxiety is to give children as much warning as possible so they aren’t caught off guard and can brace themselves. For example, if you see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror, tell your child a fire truck is coming and suggest he or she covers his or her ears. If you need to vacuum the living room, let your child know ahead of time so he or she is prepared and can go and play elsewhere while you finish cleaning. If you need to go to the grocery store on a busy Saturday afternoon, suggest to your child that he or she take a comfort toy along to help cope with the chaos. This way you are still exposing your child to the noises he or she finds stress-inducing, but you’re helping him or her to develop long-term coping strategies (cover ears, move to another room, use a fidget toy, etc.) to use when the trigger occurs without warning.
5. Use calming tools. While your long-term goal may be for your child to be able to tolerate things like vacuum cleaners, fire engines, and trips to the mall, understanding and working through autism and noise sensitivity takes time. Exposure needs to be gradual, and your child needs to find strategies to remain calm in the face of his or her noise anxiety along the way. Finding calming tools that help take the edge off while also helping your child regulate his or her emotions in response to stressful stimuli can be extremely helpful. Noise cancelling headphones are often used to help kids with autism and noise sensitivity, but there are other options to consider. Ear plugs are very portable and offer noise relief while on-the-go, relaxing music and rainmakers can help provide calming input and help take the focus away from other stress-inducing noises, blowing bubbles and/or a pinwheel can help a child regulate his or her breathing when anxiety strikes, and fidget toys are always great to have on hand to help expel nervous energy.
6. Make safety a priority. One of the tricky parts of autism and noise sensitivity is the importance of ensuring kids are educated on what different sounds mean. There is always the potential for an emergency to occur, and even if fire alarms and fire engines cause your little one to become anxious, it’s important that he or she lean how to respond appropriately rather than becoming paralyzed by fear. This can be done in a number of different ways, and you should work alongside your child’s teachers and therapists to ensure a proper plan is put in place in the event of an emergency situation. If one teacher is responsible for getting an entire classroom of children outside during a fire alarm, your child needs to know what sounds to listen for, how to respond, and how to take cues from his or her peers. Writing a Social Story – a written description of everyday situations and events told from a child’s perspective – is a great option as it will give your child something to rehearse so he or she is prepared once the situation described actually takes place.
7. Get creative. While it’s extremely important that you teach your child how to differentiate between certain sounds and that he or she learns how to respond and react in the face of an emergency, that isn’t to say exceptions can’t be made. For example, if your child consistently struggles with noise on the school playground and/or in gym class, have alternative activities written into his or her IEP. Instead of expecting your child to endure school lunches in a loud cafeteria, bring him or her home for lunch. If grocery stores and malls are too overwhelming during peak times, consider shopping early in the morning or late at night when things tend to be quieter.
There are heaps of ways to make things more manageable without completely removing stressful stimuli from your child’s life, and while some may argue that such accommodations won’t benefit a child long-term, the reality is that your child is unlikely to be playing on playgrounds and in busy school gyms, eating in noisy cafeterias, and grocery shopping during busy hours when he or she is older if noise is a challenge. It’s all about maintaining perspective, focusing on what’s most important, and helping your child find ways to make the rest more bearable.
15 Toys and Products to Reduce Sensory Sensitivity
If your child struggles with autism and noise sensitivity, there are heaps of great auditory sensory toys you can use to help him or her become more comfortable with various sounds at different volumes. Remember that the idea isn’t to AVOID or CANCEL OUT noise. While you certainly want to find ways to make things more manageable as you increase your child’s exposure to the sounds that cause him or her to feel anxious and stressed, you ultimately want him or her to develop a greater tolerance. Here are some tools and toys to consider:
Noise cancelling headphones. Before you begin working with your child on sound exposure, invest in a pair of noise canceling headphones to offer immediate relief when needed.
Ear plugs. Whether you’re trying to reduce the use of noise canceling headphones with your child, or need something more compact and portable for on-the-go relief, ear plugs are a great option. You can keep a few pairs in your purse, and your child can easily store a set in his or her pockets.
Background noise. A great way to help a child with autism and noise sensitivity is to stream different types of music at various sound levels throughout the day. White noise machines are a great stepping stone as they have lots of calming sounds to choose from, and if you’re looking for speaker recommendations so you can stream different types of music over time, I am a HUGE fan of the Sonos Play:1 Speakers. We have SIX in our house! They are really easy to setup and you can stream different music to each speaker all at the same time.
Musical instruments. There are heaps of different musical instruments your child can play with, helping him or her become more tolerant to different types and levels of sounds in a fun, non-threatening way. A rainmaker provides soothing and calming sensory input while a hand drum is louder and more deliberate, and this mini orchestra set offers everything in between!
Noisy toys. LeapFrog and Vtech offer tons of great educational toys that make sounds, many of which are fairly loud. These toys are great at captivating the attention of children while offering learning opportunities, and you can easily control the sound volume by placing duct tape overtop of the speakers. Start with a few layers of tape and once your child becomes interested and familiar with the toy, you can remove a layer to see how he or she responds. Not sure which toys to start with? Here are 8 of our favorites!
- LeapFrog Shapes And Sharing Picnic Basket
- LeapFrog Musical Rainbow Tea Set
- LeapFrog Number Lovin’ Oven
- LeapFrog 2-in-1 LeapTop Touch
- VTech Touch & Teach Word Book
- VTech Touch and Learn Activity Desk Deluxe
- VTech Touch and Teach Elephant
- LeapFrog LeapStart LeapStart Interactive Learning System
Being the parent of a child with autism and noise sensitivity can make everyday situations very challenging, especially if your little one is nonverbal and you don’t fully understand the nature of the struggles he or she faces. I urge you to speak to an occupational therapist to identify your child’s individual sensitivities and how you can help him or her cope, and that the tips I’ve shared today will give you a nudge in the right direction.
Hans Asperger once said, ‘The good and bad in a person, their potential for success or failure, their aptitudes and deficits – they are mutually conditional, arising from the same source. Our therapeutic goal must be to teach the person how to bear their difficulties. Not to eliminate them for him, but to train the person to cope with special challenges with special strategies; to make the person aware not that they are ill, but that they are responsible for their lives.’
I love this quote because I think it serves as an excellent reminder that our children do not need to be ‘fixed’; rather, they need someone on their side, day and night, to help them find strategies to navigate a world that is much harder to process than you and I will ever understand.
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