Certain sounds are particularly annoying to us all collectively. For many people, thinking of the sound of someone scraping their nails down a blackboard or the high-pitched squeal of microphone feedback can be excruciating to hear. However, if you have autism, many of the everyday noises other people take for granted can be very painful and cause unwanted intrusions.
According to the Autism Society, there are more than 3.5 million people in the U.S. currently living with Autism. The condition makes you feel, see and hear the world differently than other people. As a spectrum condition, all autistic people share certain difficulties. However, lifelong developmental disability affects each individual differently.
As an autistic person, your world can often feel overwhelming, and this can be the source of a great deal of stress. It’s generally harder for you to relate to and understand others, and even everyday communications, surroundings, activities and tasks can sometimes prove problematic.
Fortunately, all children and adults can benefit from therapies, interventions, strategies and tools that aim to reduce autistic and sensory overload symptoms, as well as increase functioning, abilities and skills. This guide provides background information on autism and sensory overload disorders — particularly how noise and sounds affect individuals with autism. It also provides strategies, tools and resources to help people with autism better cope and manage their symptoms.
Key Autism Statistics
When you’re trying to understand autism, it’s good to have the facts and figures in front of you. Some key autism spectrum disorder (ASD) statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include:
- Between 2006 and 2008, around one in six U.S. children had a developmental disability, such as autism.
- Approximately one in every 68 children in America has an autism spectrum disorder.
- One in 42 boys have an autism spectrum disorder. In girls the figure is one in 189, indicating that the disorder is more than four times more common in boys than girls.
- ASD can occur in anyone, regardless of where they’re from, their background and socioeconomic group.
- 44 percent of children with ASD have intellectual abilities that are considered to be above average.
- Older parents are more likely to have a child with ASD.
- Parents who already have one child diagnosed with autism run a 2 to 18 percent chance of having another child with the condition.
- In identical twins, if one sibling has ASD, there’s a 36-95 percent likelihood of the other twin being on the spectrum. In the case of twins who are non-identical, where one child has ASD, the other will be affected between zero and 31 percent of the time.
- From medical care to lost parental productivity, the average total costs per year relating to U.S. children on the autistic spectrum in 2011 is thought to be between $11.5 and $60.9 billion.
Physical and Emotional Symptoms Autistic Individuals Experience
Arguably, the key to understanding autism is to know the ways that it affects you or your child on both a physical and emotional level. While there are three core autism symptom categories — namely social deficits, language impairment and repetitive behaviors, there are other overlapping issues, conditions and challenges that your child may face.
One of the most particularly challenging, yet manageable, is sensory overload. A common telltale symptom among individuals with autism is reacting unusually to certain sounds, tastes, smells and textures.
When you’re on the autistic spectrum, it’s almost as though you have some of your senses turned up too high, whereas others seem to be too low. For example, you may over or under react to loud noises or pain. You may also be unable to touch certain fabrics, or they can feel very uncomfortable against your skin.
In addition to the sensory overload experiences described above, generally speaking, if you have ASD, you may also:
- Not respond to your name by the time you’re a year old.
- Not point at objects to show your interest by the time you’re 14 months old.
- Not play “pretending” games by the time you’re 18 months old.
- Have distinct trouble discussing your feelings and understanding those of other people.
- Want to be alone most of the time.
- Have delayed language and speech skills.
- Have interests you’re obsessive about.
- Be very upset by even the smallest of changes.
- Repeat words over and over (echolalia).
- Display fearlessness or fearfulness.
- Only interact with others in order to achieve a desired goal for yourself.
- Have no understanding of the concept of personal space boundaries.
- Not be comforted by other people when you’re distressed.
- Not use hand gestures in the way others do, for example, waving goodbye.
- Talk in a singsong or flat voice.
- Have difficulty understanding teasing, sarcasm and jokes.
- Act without thinking.
- Follow set routines.
- Demonstrate unusual emotional reactions and moods.
On a physical level, there are other symptoms generally known to be related to the autistic spectrum. If you have ASD, you may:
- Display hyperactivity.
- Exhibit aggression.
- Show a short attention span.
- Spin in circles, flap your hands, or rock your body backwards and forwards.
- Have self-injuring tendencies.
- Have temper tantrums.
- Avoid physical contact.
- Avoid making eye contact.
- Have inappropriate or flat facial expressions.
- Be particularly organized.
- Exhibit unusual sleeping and eating habits.
- Enjoy lining up objects and will like specific parts of said objects.
As you can see, an individual with autism can face many symptoms. As a spectrum disorder, these symptoms can vary in their intensity, frequency and severity.
Understanding Noise Sensitivities in Individuals with Autism
There are links between autism and auditory sensitivity. If you have autism, you may either overreact or completely ignore many ordinary sensations, smells, sights and sounds. It’s thought that this is because you’re processing information from your senses differently than others not on the spectrum.
For instance, you might not filter out noises that are irrelevant, or you might find that certain sounds can be very uncomfortable and distracting.
If you’re autistic, there are various different types of noise sensitivities you may experience, including:
This is characterized by an emotional reaction, such as rage or anger, to certain sounds. The trigger for this is usually a soft sound that’s often related to breathing or eating, and can be connected to people who are close to you. For example, you may be driven to distraction by the sound your significant other makes when they chew their food. However, a similar noise made by someone else may not even bother you in the slightest.
Also called sonophobia or ligyrophobia, phonophobia is an unusual and persistent fear of either specific or general environmental sounds. If you suffer from phonophobia, you may try to avoid ever exposing yourself to the sounds you’re scared of, and could in time end up being housebound due to your anxiety.
Often accompanied by tinnitus, hyperacusis is an intolerance of everyday generalized environmental noise.
Hypersensitive Hearing at Certain Frequencies
This issue often goes hand-in-hand with autism. When you’re suffering from this, it’s likely that you’re able to handle most sounds, as long as they’re at a regular level. However, this changes when the sounds change frequency, particularly when they rise above 70 decibels – say when you hear a vacuum cleaner running.
This is a sudden painful and shocking increase in the perception of sound directly related to dead or damaged hair cells within the inner ear.
As you’ll likely realize, these noise sensitivities can be incredibly life altering and upsetting to both the affected individual and to their friends and family. That’s why it’s incredibly important to find ways to reduce sound sensitivity and implement sound solutions for home, work and play.
Challenges Families Face in Overcoming Autism Symptoms
Often, as a family member of someone with autism, you can feel helpless in terms of assisting your loved one overcome the challenges they’re facing.
When your loved one is on the autism spectrum, he’ll likely face issues, challenges and problems on a daily basis. Issues that can regularly occur include:
- Facing additional conditions, such as gastrointestinal problems or epilepsy
- Finding it difficult to socialize with others
- Issues relating to sound, feel, touch and taste
- Having difficulties communicating with people
- Feeling generally frustrated at having to deal with people’s prejudice and ignorance about their condition
- Feeling ignored as a result of their autism
If you’re caring for someone who is autistic, you may also be facing your own issues and problems, such as:
- Caregiver burnout
- Frustration in finding solutions
- Inability to cope at times
- Your own health issues
This is why it’s so incredibly important that both autistic people, their loved ones and caregivers find services, treatments and therapies that will provide assistance.
Strategies to Help Individuals with ASD Respond to Severe Sensory Overload
There are many things you can do to help your loved one suffering from noise sensitivity and other sensory overload difficulties.
- Make a list of safe spaces your loved one can visit where they won’t hear the sounds they’re sensitive to.
- Speak with them about volunteering at a quiet place, such as the local library or bookstore.
- Schedule regular quiet breaks, so that after being near a busy and noisy place, they’ll have some relief.
- Try muffling the noise of the bottom of the chair legs scraping on the floor by putting cut tennis balls on the bottom of the chair legs.
- Have earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones on hand in case of unwanted sounds.
- Use soundproofing, noise-reduction and sound absorption materials within the home to minimize the negative impact of unwelcome noise effects on ASD individuals. Soundproofing a room, for example, can provide much-needed relief.
- Install carpets to muffle sounds.
- Encourage your loved one to get out and take a walk in nature on a daily basis.
- Expose your loved one to the source of the noise they have difficulty in handling. If they can’t bear the sound of the vacuum cleaner, allow them to handle a machine when it’s not on. Perhaps turn it to the lowest setting and see if they’d like to try using the vacuum. Practice this little and often, and you may just find that they get used to the noise source.
- Limit the number of trips you take to the supermarket if your loved one is upset by the lights.
- Replace fluorescent bulbs with the incandescent variety if they tend to upset your family member.
- Encourage your loved one to wear sunglasses to reduce visual overload.
- Add blinds or room darkening curtains on windows to keep bright sunlight at bay.
- Don’t force your loved one to eat foods they’re sensitive to. For example, if they have issues with crunchy and slimy foods, avoid chips and jello.
- Observe their reactions to different foods to see which cause sensory pain, and which ones they just don’t care for.
- Don’t force anyone with ASD to wear or to touch fabrics and materials that cause them stress.
- Keep your distance, if you’re too close to your loved one and they show signs of discomfort.
- Limit exposure to fragrances or strong smells that are problematic, and get into the habit of buying unscented products.
The above are some strategies that will work depending on the individual. Try thinking of how certain stimuli affects your loved one, and work on how to minimize their exposure.
Professional Therapies to Help Treat Sensory Overload
Thankfully, there are several studied and proven therapies to help with sensory overload relating to ASD.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy: For phobias, anxiety disorders, autism and other conditions, experts often recommend cognitive behavioral therapy as it teaches the person how to cope and self-manage their emotions.
- Sensory Integration Therapy: As a known therapy to help people with ASD or sensory overload difficulties, sensory integration therapy helps children and adults with autism improve their daily functioning.
Additional Resources for Autism and Sensory Overload
Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, along with other prominent organizations, provides resources to help autistic individuals and parents of children with autism or a sensory overload disorder, including the below:
- Autism Speaks: Sensory Tools and Products
- Autism Speaks: Services and resources by state
- Autism Source: Database
- Association for Science in Autism Treatment: Resources for Parents and Educators
- Centers for Disease and Control: Free Autism Materials
- Organization for Autism Research
Autism is a lifelong condition for which there is no definitive “cure.” As a society continuing to learn more about autism, there are more and more ways to help support people who have it. Through early detection, as well as structured support and strategies to minimize symptoms, you can successfully manage the condition so that you or your family member can live a fulfilling life.
Through this guide, we hope that you’ve increased your understanding of the world of an ASD person, particularly in the areas of noise sensitivities and other sensory overload challenges. We hope that you find the tips, advice and noise solutions for autism presented above to stop sensory overload helpful in managing the condition for yourself or your loved one.
Call 1-866-949-9269 today to speak to a Soundproof Cow team member to learn more about soundproofing a home for individuals with autism.