Autism and noise is an important topic that most people don’t consider enough.
Young children with autism, adults on the autism spectrum and every age in between may be affected by sensory challenges or sensory differences.
We are talking about how these individuals respond to sensory input such as sound, taste, smell or movement.
A simple way to describe the problem is that these children and adults seem to have their senses “turned up too high” or they appear to have their senses “turned down too low.” As a result, they over-react or under-react to sensory input compared to other people.
It’s estimated that approximately 65% of autistic individuals demonstrate sensitivity to sound. It’s fairly common for them to have what we would call “behavior problems” or “behavior differences” related to how they respond to sensory input.
They may demonstrate a range of responses such as extreme behaviors and melt-downs or they may ignore or appear to “block everything out” to try to avoid sensory input that is painful or uncomfortable.
Those who are under-sensitive to sensory information may hurt themselves or encounter danger because they don’t react to situations in ways that most other people do. There is a wide range of responses.
Autism and noise
Autistic children and adults can hear just like those who do not have autism. Their challenge is not hearing acuity. Except in isolated cases, they can hear just fine. The difficulty they experience is related more to how they respond to what they hear.
How does sound sensitivity affect autistic individuals?
One problem can be that their filter doesn’t work well. Imagine this scenario.
Classmates are breathing and moving around and fidgeting. There are children walking in the hallway. A timer is ticking. The air conditioner fan is blowing. A lawnmower is buzzing outside the classroom window. And a train is going through town five miles away.
And . . . the teacher is talking.
So, what does our targeted student listen to? All of it? None of it? Maybe the train?
You and I are usually able to filter out all those random background noises and focus on the teacher talking. Have you ever paid attention to how you are able to block out extraneous noise when you need to?
But our targeted students can’t do that as well as typical adults can. It’s not just autism. All children can have difficulty in a noisy environment, but those with autism or related special learning needs tend to struggle even more.
Add one more element
There is one more variable that is significant to remember. All students are not the same distance from the teacher. Those sitting farthest away from whoever is speaking experience an added challenge from those sitting close to the person talking.
How does the noise element affect our students with ASD?
What difference does this all make? Research shows a long list of problems that can be related to noisy learning environments. Stress, communication breakdowns, difficulty listening and processing language, inappropriate behavior, temper tantrums and meltdowns, fear, avoidance, social difficulties. . . the list goes on.
So, what’s the solution?
It seems that an easy solution would be just to have the teacher talk louder. But this is not a viable long-term solution. Teachers who try to talk louder all the time experience their own stress and vocal fatigue. Some even end up seeking medical attention for voice problems. This just isn’t a reasonable way to solve the problem.
Four things you CAN do
1. Be aware of the listening environment you are in
Just close your eyes. Pay attention to all those background sounds and noises that you normally don’t attend to. You and I have an amazing capacity to block out sound when we need to. Remember that some students don’t have that capacity. Just assessing the situation will give us a giant step toward accommodating for our students with auditory sensitivity.
2. Make quieter environments
Redesigning our school buildings doesn’t seem like a reasonable goal. But once we are aware of the noise in our environment, we can implement some simple changes that can make a difference.
Consider these options:
3. Create quieter students
It would be great to have some magic fairy dust to sprinkle on a class of students to lower their volume. Let me know when you find it. In the meantime, some visual tools can help teach students to be aware of their own voice volume and their contribution to the overall noise in the environment. Ultimately, it’s a teaching thing.
Here's an example from my friends at VIZZLE.
A simple four-point chart can work.
Level 3 is “Outside” voice
Level 2 is an “Inside” voice
Level 1 is whisper
Zero means no talking
4. Consider an amplification system
About 25 years ago I worked with a classroom teacher to use an amplification system in her classroom. Although it helped her students respond positively, the equipment and wires and bulk of everything made it awkward to use. Plus, it was really expensive.
Luckily, technology has matured over the years. Currently available sound amplification systems are easy to use and affordable. On top of that, they produce positive student results.
An example of a simple sound amplification system would have a teacher wearing or using a microphone with speakers located in key areas around a classroom or work environment.
There are studies that link sound amplification with a long list of benefits including improved student behavior. Sound systems also improve student motivation, academic performance and general engagement in activities in the classroom.
In addition, sound systems help reduce teacher stress and preserve the teacher’s voice.
Your Speech Pathologist or Educational Consultant can help explore this option for your specific environment.
How do you reach your goal?
Adjusting auditory environments can produce measurable results in students with autism or special learning needs in participation, performance and behavior. This is a really important topic that is easy to ignore because it’s invisible. Don’t forget to evaluate autism and noise.
P.S. Do you use a sound amplification system in your environment? Please share your experience below.
P.P.S. Remember that using visual strategies can help students achieve success in environments where noise makes it is difficult for them. The strategies in Solving Behavior Problems in Autism can help you help your students gain success.