Auditory hypersensitivity

What is auditory hypersensitivity?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Auditory hypersensitivity is when information from the sense of hearing is received too intensely. People with this condition may suffer a lot when it's too noisy, or when there are sudden, loud or persistent noises. Autistic people have hyper- or hypo-sensitivities more often, but people without any particular developmental diagnosis can also have these conditions.

What is auditory hypersensitivity?

Auditory hypersensitivity is a sensory auditory disorder in which there is an overly strong response to sound stimuli. Noisy places, specific types of sound, large quantities of sound, the persistence of a sound, the sudden appearance of a sound, these are all stimuli that can cause an autistic person to suffer, and this is one of the most common hypersensitivities among that community. But non-autistic people can also suffer from auditory hypersensitivity.

The various forms of auditory hypersensitivity

Auditory hypersensitivity

It’s an increase in sensitivity to certain sounds.

Hyperacusis

This is an increase in sensitivity to all sounds, regardless of how loud or quiet they are.

Misophonia

This is having strong reactions of anger, fear or disgust to specific sounds of everyday life, such as chewing noises.

If I hear someone brushing their teeth, I get so disgusted that I have to run away immediately. At one time, my favorite radio station had a commercial that regularly featured someone brushing their teeth. I stopped listening to the radio.

Phonic hypersensitivity

This is having intense reactions to speech sounds, specifically.

Hypersensitivity to white noise

This is having intense reactions to background noise, such as a fan, refrigerator or plane in the distance.

Symptoms of auditory hypersensitivity

The symptoms of auditory hypersensitivity vary from person to person. You don’t need to have this whole list of symptoms to be hypersensitive, and there are many symptoms that aren’t on this list.

A few years ago, I lost my voice. It was incredible how my interventions with an autistic student actually became so much more effective as a result of this!

Consequences of auditory hypersensitivity

The consequences of hypersensitivity vary greatly from one person to another, depending on age, skills, environment and the tools at their disposal.

I'm very sensitive to sounds, because they all come to me with the same intensity, whether it's the background music in a restaurant, the conversation of the people sitting next to me, the sound of the keys on the cash register or the voice of the person in front of me. As a result, everything gets mixed up, I don't understand anything and I tire myself out trying to isolate what the person in front of me is saying. If there are more people at the table, I'm totally lost and I just pretend to understand by vacantly nodding my head from time to time, and it takes me several days to recover from this.

What to do if auditory hypersensitivity is a problem?

You have to be creative and proactive, identifying the problem and finding ways to eliminate or mitigate its effects.

Earmuffs

Earmuffs are sturdy and inexpensive. They are often supplied by schools and some employers. They cut the person off from their environment and enable them to concentrate. They can, however, hinder interaction, making it difficult to hear others. Some earmuffs are rigid and uncomfortable; if this is the case, a wider variety of sizes, cushions and sound management intensities are available from safety equipment retailers.

Earplugs

Earplugs are inexpensive and are also provided free of charge by some employers. They cut the person off from their environment and enable them to concentrate. They can, however, hinder the person’s interactions, as it will be difficult to hear others. Many models are available: semi-rigid, foam, wax, and more.

Important

Too much sensory deprivation can be detrimental and increase the intensity of the problem. If, for example, a person uses earplugs, they should not wear them all the time, but rather keep them for when they are needed.

Musician earplugs

Musician’s earplugs are made to measure, prioritizing the voice and preserving sound quality while reducing ambient noise. They are small and discreet. They are expensive, but many insurance companies may cover part of the expense. They are ideal for enabling the person to interact and converse. Three levels of intensity are available. To obtain them, consult a hearing care professional.

Music

For people suffering from auditory hypersensitivity, unpleasant symptoms are so frequent that some develop an intense aversion to anything to do with hearing. However, their hypersensitivity can sometimes make them very sensitive to musical details, and many of them develop a great passion for music. In a way, it’s as if this helps the person to forgive their ears for making them suffer so much in certain circumstances, since in others, hypersensitivity is a real gift, especially for music lovers.

Music regularly makes me cry, not in the way that hurts, but in the way that washes and soothes.

Adapting to the environment

There are a wide variety of more or less complex adaptations, ranging from the simple closing of a door to the installation of soundproofing panels. It is seldom possible to replace all the aggressive elements, but the living environment of a person with auditory hypersensitivity should always take this into consideration when purchasing appliances such as household appliances, stove hoods, various electronic devices or the purchase of toys for other members of the household.

A TV that’s on all the time, phones on loudspeaker, video games played at high volume and sound alerts from electronic devices can make daily life unbearable for a hypersensitive person. Sounds cannot simply be ignored. Ensuring a respectful living environment requires the wearing of headphones during individual activities, or keeping the volume lower.

When rearranging the environment or moving house, arranging for the hypersensitive person to have a place where they can get a break from the noise is also a solution.

Breaks and places of retreat

Having a place of retreat and frequent breaks can help the person manage the large amount of stimuli they have to deal with. Some parents turn a wardrobe into a cocoon of comfort, with blankets, cushions, soft lighting and a few books and stuffed animals, so that the autistic person can rest. An adult who has to attend a social event may choose to make several trips to the bathroom or outside, to give themself a chance to function better.

Notify

Warnings that there will be an intense noise can help people prepare themselves both physically and psychologically. Surprises can put the person into hypervigilance and amplify the problem. Of course, all pranks or jump-scares involving noise should be avoided.

Important

In case of distress, or if the solutions put in place don't work, it's imperative to consult someone who specializes in sensory hypersensitivities.

Noise scale

A chart or scale with a gradation of noise intensity can help some people express their feelings. Communicating about the sound stimuli is a good opportunity to help the person name things in a calm and polite way, according to their age and abilities.

Professional consulting

Some people can develop new skills that enable the brain to cope better with intrusive stimuli. These solutions are usually proposed and supervised by specialists such as occupational therapists.

Valérie Jessica Laporte

WRITER SPECIALIZING IN AUTISM (FRENCH)