You’ve likely seen it before. A young boy crying at the holiday parade when the fire trucks go by. A girl who becomes inconsolable in a busy restaurant, hands over her ears. Many of us chalk it up to kids “not being used to loud noises” or “overreacting.” But, parents of children with sound sensitivity know that it is more than that. Their son is terrified of the sound of a lawn mower outside. Their daughter runs and hides when the vacuum is turned on and won’t come out for hours. Known by many terms (noise sensitivity, auditory over-responsiveness, hyperacusis), sound sensitivity keeps many children and their families trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to live a (literally) quiet existence. They don’t go to restaurants or holiday parades. They avoid lawn mowers and vacuums. For them, it’s easier to stay home than to deal with the aftermath of an unexpected sound. But what causes sound sensitivity? How can you tell if your child may be experiencing it? Can anything be done to help?
1. Sound sensitivity includes symptoms that may surprise you.
When thinking of a child who is sensitive to sound, the images described above quickly come to mind. But auditory over-responsiveness affects children in more ways than being easily startled and scared of loud noises. While every child is unique and may experience any combination of these symptoms in varying severities, symptoms frequently include:
- Difficulty focusing, distractibility
- Difficulty with social interaction
- Difficulty understanding tone of voice
- Sleep difficulties
- Lack of response to their name, as though they don’t hear you
- Difficulties may occur in various environments, even when it’s quiet
2. Sound sensitivity is a neurological difference.
Most often, sound sensitivity is the product of the way a child’s nervous system processes sound. However, a child’s reactions to noise may be the result of structural differences in the ear, or a side effect of medication. It is always important to first consult your child’s pediatrician or audiologist to rule out any underlying medical condition. After medical conditions are ruled out, it is important to understand our sensory processing system in relation to sound.
Our environment is full of noise: the faint whir of the refrigerator, the music on the radio, the person speaking to us. For most of us, our brains automatically filter out the less important sounds to be able to focus on what’s most important. We “tune out” the irrelevant sounds without even realizing we are doing so. But, children with auditory over-responsiveness have a much less effective filter. Background noise isn’t filtered by the brain, so the refrigerator running seems just as loud, or louder, than the sound of a person speaking. This results in the child experiencing a restaurant as though they are in the front row at a rock concert, combined with sirens going off and a helicopter overhead. Because the brain is experiencing an unrelenting bombardment of noise, it begins to associate negative emotions with everyday sounds. Over time, it becomes extremely difficult for the brain to separate sounds from negative responses, which brings us to our next point.
3. Children with sound sensitivity do not have control over their reactions to noise.
Imagine sitting in a quiet room. Whether you’re working on a project or scrolling the internet, you are fully engrossed in what you’re doing. Suddenly, your phone rings. You jump a little bit, your heart races, and your breath catches in your throat. You quickly realize the source of the sound, realize there is no cause for alarm, and the startled feeling passes after just a few seconds. But in that instant, before your brain categorized the sound and realized there was no threat, your body automatically primed itself for protection. Your muscles jumped to action and your heart and lungs began to increase your oxygen level. If you had needed to fight or flee from the source of the unexpected sound, your body was ready. This happened without your awareness, intention, or control.
Now let’s consider the child with sound sensitivity. The same system that is not able to filter sounds effectively also has difficulty determining what is dangerous and what isn’t. When the brain is unable to determine that a sound isn’t life-threatening, it activates a larger protective response. When that bigger protective response is triggered, it leads to what we know as dysregulation or meltdowns: inconsolable crying, aggression, trying to run away. Children in this state are NOT trying to misbehave or to manipulate the people around them. Their brains are in a state of alarm, and their bodies are simply responding accordingly. As mentioned above, their brains are bombarded with offensive sounds all day, every day. This leads to a fight or flight system that is simmering just under the surface, ready to leap into action. All. The. Time.
4. Occupational therapy can help children and families gain control over their lives.
Fortunately, there are professionals that may help! Pediatric occupational therapists are uniquely trained in a variety of sensory processing challenges, including sound sensitivity. They are skilled in designing treatments centered around helping the child overcome sensory challenges to successfully engage in meaningful everyday activities. Every child is unique, and so is every treatment plan. Using research-based methods such as the five-day Safe and Sound Protocol as well as carefully designed sensory integration treatment approaches, we are able to help break the cycle of protective responses. We also equip children, parents and teachers with coping strategies and adaptations that can help the child succeed in all environments, not just in therapy.
During and after treatment, parents frequently discover that they no longer have to stay in every weekend. They can finally enjoy a meal out as a family, and perhaps they’ll catch that holiday parade after all.
If you believe your child may have sound sensitivity, contact us for a free initial consultation to discuss your concerns and the possibility of occupational therapy services, including the Safe and Sound Protocol.
To review the research and additional information on the Safe and Sound Protocol, visit https://integratedlistening.com/ssp-safe-sound-protocol/
For more information on sensory processing disorders, visit www.spdstar.org
For more information on pediatric occupational therapy and what it can do, visit our private therapy page.
The purpose of this blog is to share knowledge and experiences to increase awareness. Every person’s viewpoint is unique and valuable. In the spirit of creating community, we ask that comments remain respectful.