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Noise sensitivity in people with autism

Last update on Nov, 28, 2023

When a person has autism, their hearing is often more sensitive than that of a non-autistic person. They might keenly hear what’s considered background noise to other people, such as electricity, creaking pipes and the hum of air conditioning. This autism hearing sensitivity is known as hyperacusis, though the condition can also be present in non-autistic people. Here’s what you need to know to minimize the effects of autism hearing sensitivity.

Understanding autism noise sensitivities

Why does autism hearing sensitivity occur? Autism is closely linked to sensory processing disorders and difficulties—whether hyposensitivity (minimally responsive) or hypersensitivity (highly responsive).

Autism hearing sensitivity can affect an autistic person’s everyday life. Overwhelming sounds, touch sensations or smells may cause sensory overload, which is when the senses absorb more information than the brain can process. Constantly noticing background or loud noises can become irritating, distracting, scary and even painful in some cases.

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Tips and tricks for managing noise sensitivities

Because of sensitivity to sounds, autism might lead a person to take extra precautions with their ears, such as wearing headphones or earplugs to dampen loud noises. With autism hearing sensitivity, it’s important to alternate between exposure to noises (even bothersome ones) and quiet periods of relief.

If the person with autism hearing sensitivity is a friend or family member, get to know their triggers and help them find calming, quiet spaces to get relief from noisy and overwhelming environments. 

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Challenging noises and ways to cope with them

Certain sounds are worse than others for people with hearing sensitivity. Find out how each type of noise might affect you or your loved one and how to address the situation.

General loud noises can annoy anyone, but especially people with autism. Sounds like vacuuming, heavy music or lawnmowers can be difficult to tolerate for extended periods of time. For continuous loud noises, it’s best to use headphones or earplugs to muffle the sound. Or, if the sound can be avoided, go into a different room or location until it stops. In the case of a startlingly loud, short-term noise, remove yourself from the situation and take some time to recover and relax.

Hard floors often creak and cause echoes, which can be especially bothersome for an autistic person sensitive to sound. So, how can you reduce floor noises? In your own home, you can ensure floor noise reduction by laying down rugs and adding more furniture or heavy curtains into open, spacious rooms that tend to echo. Though it’s a more involved solution, putting underlayment beneath your hardwood floors can help dull the sound in a more permanent way. In a room that you don’t have control over, such as at a friend’s house, removing shoes to prevent echoing can help

The shape of a room can affect how sound travels through it. For example, auditoriums and amphitheaters have shapes that encourage sound to travel farther. So, when you have curved walls and ceilings, sound might echo in a way that’s unpleasant to someone with autism and hearing sensitivities. Like hard floors, you can achieve ceiling sound reduction by filling the space with more furniture and accessories to dampen the sound. Adding sound-absorbing materials—such as curtains, carpet and soft pieces of furniture—will dampen echoing.  

It might be surprising, but sometimes, autistic people can hear electricity. It manifests as a low buzzing sound that is distractingly constant. However, overriding the noise with sounds you enjoy could limit its effects. Try putting on some low-volume nature sounds or music you like. Or, if you simply want silence, use headphones and earplugs.

Air conditioning noise reduction can be done with a few clicks of a button. Turning down the fan setting or setting a timer that will turn it off occasionally will offer some relief. For those hot days when you absolutely need air conditioning, try masking the sound or using sound-reduction methods like earplugs and headphones.

Persistently loud air conditioning and forced air noise could be a part of a bigger issue with your home. To head off possible problems and minimize the noise, have your air conditioning and vents checked and cleaned.

When the furnace kicks on, air forced through ducts can cause noise. You can try reducing furnace noise with regular cleaning and maintenance. Like conditioning, loud heating noises might indicate an issue with your system; contact a professional if the noises are persistent or particularly loud.

They might solve bigger issues with the heating system and reduce furnace noise. Otherwise, sound masking methods and headphones can prevent irritation caused by the constant humming or air noise from the furnace.

The sound of water flowing through a home’s pipes and toilet may stir up autism noise sensitivity. For toilet noise reduction, consider installing a low-flow model that will make less noise since it uses less water as it flushes. And for pipe noise reduction, get them checked regularly. If you are unable to make changes or control the service schedule, exposure therapy might be the only option. Develop and practice coping mechanisms to reduce the effects.

Washing machines and clothes dryers can make a lot of noise with their rinse, draining and spin cycles. The rattling and rumbling can be a lot, even for non-autistic people who don’t experience sound sensitivity.

For some autistic individuals, having control over the noise brings some relief. If the sounds of a washing machine and clothes dryer are causing anxiety, turn it off for a moment of relief. Then, when you’re ready, turn it back on. If you have the resources, soundproofing your laundry room or space will also help with washing machine noise reduction. Putting a soundproof quilt on your door or hanging an acoustic panel or sound-absorbing foam in the space can also help minimize the sound that travels through your home.

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How hearing aids can help sensory sensitivities

Low-gain hearing aids for autism can help with hearing and sensory sensitivities. Low-gain hearing aids are fitted using a specific method with the intention of treating auditory processing disorders in people with minimal or no hearing loss. These devices reduce distracting background noise and bring voices to the forefront.

If you or a loved one experiences sensory overload issues due to sound sensitivity, low-gain hearing aids for autism are worth considering. For autistic children, low-gain hearing aids could even help them better process sound to enhance their learning and language abilities.

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Struggling with hearing concerns?

If you or a loved one deal with these hearing concerns, oversensitivity and sensory overload, consider setting up a Miracle-Ear appointment. A hearing care professional can help you address your hearing- and ear-related problems and talk to you about solutions like low-gain hearing aids.

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