Auditory Defensiveness - Sound Hyper-Sensitivity

Auditory Defensiveness - Sound Hyper-Sensitivity

Auditory defensiveness is a discomfort, hypersensitivity, or an avoidance of certain sounds, which would not be particularly disturbing or distressing to most people.

Many children, who have sensory processing difficulties, suffer from auditory defensiveness. These children tend to be sensitive to sounds at either extreme of the sound spectrum. They are also often simply sensitive to loud sounds. High frequency sounds are those sounds that are high pitched such as squeaks and squeals, for example: the sharp sound of a squeaky metal hinge, the sounds of vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, power tools, shrieking bird sounds, the sound of a baby or a young child screaming. High pitched sounds such as these are generally alerting to most people, but to the child who is defensive to sound, these sounds often signal a reason for panic or fear, and alert the primitive flight or fright, survival nervous system.

The child might also react abnormally to low frequency sounds, such as the sound of thunder, trucks, and motor bike engines.

When he encounters loud noises, a child who is auditory defensiveness might typically cover his ears and show signs of distress - or might even begin to cry.

Children who are auditory defensive usually cope better when they are in a quiet and calm environment. They would be inclined to have some difficulty in concentrating when they are in a noisy environment. Even the subtle shifts, rustlings, and gentle noises of a day-to-day classroom environment can be distracting to them. For this reason, they often seem to cope better in a one-on-one teaching situation at school.

When he is in a noisy environment, the auditory defensive child might even be inclined to become noisier himself, as the noise deregulates him. They might also become noisy in an effort to have more control of the situation as they are then the loudest sound around! The louder the ambient noise and the louder the child seems to become. This is why their parents find it hard to appreciate that they might have a hypersensitivity to noise, when they are in fact very loud themselves!!! These children are often the noisiest and most boisterous children at a party. They also tend to become deregulated, disorganised, overwhelmed, and their own behaviour becomes disruptive! Such children would likely respond to being moved into a less noisy place. They may also respond well to deep pressure input and organised heavy work or resisted movement tasks.

In addition to their hypersensitivity to loud noise, they might also be acutely aware of other sounds that are not generally thought of as disturbing, such as the sound of a clock ticking, or of a small creature scratching. Some children are acutely aware of such low intensity low volume sounds and might become disorganised, upset, or annoyed when exposed to such sounds. They are not always necessarily aware that it is the sound that distresses them, and it may help to verbalise this for a child, so as to raise it to their level of awareness.

Tips for managing auditory defensiveness

  • Reduce the ambient noise level wherever possible, and be aware of noisy situations which could trigger an avoidance response in the child.
  • If your child is likely to be frightened by a sound, especially in the case of a younger child, see if you can pre-empt the situation by drawing the child close to you or by doing what it takes to make the child secure. Take care not to over-do this as you might inadvertently give him the message that there is in fact good reason to be fearful! A child who feels safe and secure is less likely to become auditory defensive.
  • Look out for the auditory defensive child who is the noise-maker and help him to organise his behaviour and to settle down.
  • Teachers should endeavour to keep the ambient noise level low, so that they do not need to shout above the noise when giving instructions or when addressing the class. Parents and teachers who tend to use a high-pitched or shrill tone of voice should be aware of how this deregulates sensitive children, and should endeavour to breathe deeply and to lower their tone of voice J.
  • Parents should avoid shouting at the children at ALL times. There is nothing to be gained by shouting at children, especially if the child is auditory defensive.
  • Schools, party venues, and other places where children gather can make a playground rule: No screaming or shrieking!
  • Offer the auditory defensive child opportunities for deep pressure and strong proprioceptive input to assist them in organising themselves.
  • Auditory defensive children can be given the opportunity to leave the room or the noisy situation for a short time in order to allow them to settle again and to calm or to organise themselves.
  • It is easier for a child to settle to a noisy situation if he becomes accustomed to the noise slowly, for example: arriving early at a party venue or arriving early for a theatre show, allows the child to become accustomed to the rising noise volume, rather than having to adjust immediately to a noisy situation.
  • The use of noise-cancelling headphones and ear muffs could be of value in serious cases of auditory defensiveness. Auditory defensive children can make good progress in Occupational Therapy when a sensory integrative approach is used.