Sound Sensitivity & Autism

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Sound sensitivity can be debilitating for persons with autism. Learn the definitions of sound sensitivity and autism, hyper and hyposensitivity, the science behind sound sensitivity, consequences, and treatment techniques in this lesson.

What Is Sound Sensitivity and Autism?

Imagine that you go to a friend's house to watch a movie and she has 10 different TV screens playing all at the same time. It would be pretty overwhelming, right? Many persons with autism suffer from an overwhelming sound sensitivity that feels exactly this way. Their brains operate in a way that they can pick up on many different sounds in an environment, and they have difficulty isolating a primary sound (for example, a teacher talking) from the other sounds in their environment (students talking, pencils writing, cars passing outside, school children playing on the playground, etc.).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a widespread neurodevelopmental disorder, affecting about 1 in 68 children according to the Center for Disease Control, that be characterized by difficulty with cognition, social interaction, communication, and sensory sensitivities. ASD is a spectrum because persons can range from mild to severe in their symptoms. A person with ASD might not only be sensitive to sounds, but might also be easily distressed by other forms of sensory input, such as an itchy shirt tag.

Hyperacusis is the type of sound sensitivity that is most commonly associated with autism, and can be simply defined as perceiving certain sounds that others find normal as loud and uncomfortable. A person with hyperacusis might find the sound of a washing machine or vacuum as overwhelming and frightening, for example.

While a firework show is loud but tolerable for a typical person, a child with autism may find the sound overpowering and unbearable.
Sound sensitivity autism fireworks

Sound Sensitivity in Autism

Austrian-American psychiatrist Leo Kramer was the first person to define autism as its own disorder in the early 1940's and was also the first to note its relationship with sound sensitivity. He noticed that children with autism were often hypo-sensitive or hyper-sensitive to sound.

Persons with autism who are hypo-sensitive to sound may not hear sound enough and therefore seek sound stimulation. They may not hear their teacher or mother calling their name. Furthermore they may bang their hands on a trashcan, scream, or yell to achieve that sound stimulation.

Persons with autism who are hyper-sensitive to sound, which is what this lesson focuses on, are often distressed by sounds because they perceive sounds in the environment to be louder than they actually are. They also may have the ability to pick up on many different sounds that a typical person wouldn't hear, which can feel overwhelming and overstimulating.

The Science Behind Sound Sensitivity

A French study published in 2004 found that persons with autism reported being uncomfortable with a decibel or volume of sound that which most people find agreeable. This higher sensitivity to sound may have to do with greater activity in various brain regions such as the amygdala. A UCLA study utilized Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to highlight regions in the brain that were associated with processing sensory information and were more active to sound compared to a brain scan of someone without autism.

Sound sensitivity can be incredibly overwhelming and debilitating for persons with autism.
Image of girl cuffing ears

Negative Consequences of Sound Sensitivity

While sensitivity to sound may seem like a minor inconvenience, it can actually be quite debilitating and negatively affect many aspects of a person with ASD's life. Following are some adverse effects of sound sensitivity:

  • Avoidance of social interaction in which there will be a lot of noise, such as a toddler play date or playground.
  • Difficulty concentrating on another person's spoken words due to inability to filter out background noises.
  • Anxiety and panic attacks due to inability to handle hearing so many sounds at once.
  • Low attention span due to inability to tune out distracting sounds in the environment when studying, taking a test or doing classwork.
  • Safety issues due to persons with autism trying to get away from overwhelming sound situations and wandering out into the street or running away from a secure environment. A study that surveyed parents of 814 children reported that sound sensitivity caused safety issues in 43 to 52 percent of the children in the study.

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