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People with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) report auditory sensitivity or hypersensitivity to sound. Children and adults with autism or Asperger’s also frequently report sound sensitivity. The medical term for sound sensitivity is ‘hyperacusis’. Occupational therapists sometimes also use the term ‘over-responsivity to noise’ to describe this sensory challenge.

People who experience auditory sensitivity may be sensitive to certain sounds and not others. They may overreact to sounds or avoid noisy places or activities.

vestibular system

Others might find filtering out background noise more difficult than others do. Or they may also be easily overwhelmed by too many competing noises occurring at once. For example, if you are trying to have a conversation in a busy café where there is music also playing. For those living or working with a child or adult that experiences sound sensitivity these are three things you should know.

1: Auditory sensitivity occurs because

Hypersensitivity to sounds can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes the auditory sensitivity relates to medical condition or structural problem within the ear itself. It can also occur as a side effect of some medications. When there is no medical reason to explain the auditory sensitivity, it is thought that the brain is not processing sound sensory inputs adequately. It is thought the part of the brain that filters sounds and decides on how important noises are, the amygdala, pays more attention to sounds than it needs to. Occupational therapists usually refer to this sensory issue as a ‘sensory modulation difficulty’. Sensory modulation is one of the components of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). You can read more about SPD on our page, ‘What is Sensory Processing Disorder?’

As noted above, therapists typically call  auditory sensitivity ‘over-responsivity to noise’. This is because children and adults with sensitivity to sounds usually have a bigger response or reaction to noises than might be expected by someone who does not experience sound sensitivity.  The child or adult might be more easily surprised or startled by sounds than others. Or they may hear sounds that others in the same space don’t hear. They may find it difficult to ignore sounds or become quickly overwhelmed by multiple sounds. Some also describe hearing certain sounds as being painful.  This is because their amygdala, the part of the brain which takes in sensory information, responds differently.

Auditory sensitivity – the amygdala and its fight flight freeze response.

The amygdala is a pea sized group of neurons that sit roughly in the centre of the brain. It connects to most of the other parts of the brain and sends sensory messages  from the body to the relevant parts of the brain. It is a bit like a traffic controller. Sending and directing the sensory messages to the part of the brain that needs to process them. It is also responsible for keeping the body safe. Sometimes it will trigger an automatic safety response called a fight, flight or freeze response. This response is designed as a protective mechanism to keep us safe.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that makes us jump if we hear an unexpected sound.  It is the part of the brain that tunes in if we hear a noise that we can’t quite figure out.  It’s the part that makes us instantly more alert if we hear our head teacher’s or manager’s voice. It is also the part of the brain that processes sounds differently in children and adults with auditory sensitivity.

What happens when there is hypersensitivity to sound?

It is thought that the amygdala (the sensory traffic controller) of children and adults with auditory sensitivity pays more much attention to sounds than others. Instead of ignoring sounds that aren’t important, it keeps attending to them. This means children and adults with sound sensitivity are more easily distracted to noises in the environment. It may also affect their ability to focus on the relevant noise (e.g. their teacher or presenter speaking).

Children or adults with hypersensitivity to noise are also typically more easily alerted by sounds than others. Their sensory traffic controller is more alert and listening out for sounds than those of others. When an unexpected sound occurs, instead of directing the sensory messages through to the thinking parts of the brain to understand what it was, the amygdala more readily initiates a fight or flight reaction.

Sometimes children and adults with sensitivity to sounds can be overloaded by noises in the environment.  Sensory overload from noises is commonly reported in autistic spectrum disorder.  When sensory overload occurs it is thought that the amygdala struggles to control all of the sensory traffic. It is like a traffic jam.  One of those traffic jams where all of the cars are beeping their horns. The brain cannot process all of the information and will trigger a fight, flight or freeze response.  So, the child or adult might hit out, run away or shut down. It is important to remember that this is an automatic nervous system response rather than ‘behaviour’.

2: The commonly reported signs of auditory sensitivity include

  • The child dislikes loud or unexpected sounds e.g. fire alarms, sirens, school bells, fireworks

  • They may startle easily to unexpected sound e.g. sirens, motor cycle going past

  • The child may dislike higher pitched sounds such as vacuum cleaners or hand dryers

  • They could have difficulty with low hum pitched sounds such as refrigerator or lorry engine

  • The child may be easily distracted by background noises such as traffic outside, background music, an air conditioner, a refrigerator or buzz from fluorescent lights

  • They may notice sounds that others don’t notice

  • The child may cover their ears to sounds

  • They could dislike of cinema or concerts due to the noise level

3: You can help children and adults who experience auditory sensitivity by

  • Firstly you must understand that their responses are driven by the sensory traffic controller in their brain.  Their responses are not naughty or difficult behaviour.  They are having difficulty modulating the sounds that they are hearing in the environment

  • Have ear defenders or noise cancelling headphones available for the child to use in situations that might be noisier (e.g. cafeteria, fire work event, shopping centre)

  • Give the child extra time between instructions and also more time before you repeat instructions to avoid sensory overload

  • Completing heavy work activities with the child prior to going into noisy environments– we’ll be a publishing a post about this soon, join our mailing list to be notified when it is published

  • Reduce the sound distractions in the environment when they need to work and focus, this could be by turning distractions off or using headphones

We explore these ideas further and also provide other suggestions for helping to support sensory processing disorder in our course Sensory Processing What’s the Fuss?

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References

  • Ayres, A.J. (1972). SI and Learning Disorders.
  • Dunn, W. (2014). Sensory Profile-2.  User’s Manual. Texas: The Psychological Corporation.
  • Miller, L.J. (2014). Sensational Kids Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder.  Revised
  • Mucklow, N. (2009). The Sensory Team Handboook.

Picture Credits

  • Mother and child with ear defenders – Photo by Shari Murphy on Unsplash

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