Hypersensitive Hearing & Autism: What I learnt during 10 days of silence

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When I was silent for 10 days, I didn’t expect my hearing to become hypersensitive. Not communicating or having any physical contact with others, temporarily changed how I experienced and perceived sound.

Despite a lifetime of regular hearing by the end of the meditation course, I needed to cover my ears in response to the sound of my own voice. It physically hurt my inner ears and made me feel sick.

I developed new routines and habits as a defence mechanism against my sensitivity to certain sounds. Other people’s breathing became unbearably noisy, so I avoided being close to anyone. The ticking of a clock or watch was a frantic distraction from what I was doing, so I often wore my scarf around my ears.

Hypersensitive Hearing and Autism

Sensory sensitivities are common within people on the Autistic Spectrum. The National Autistic Society recently released a short film ‘Sensory Sensitivity’ illustrating how this can impact on everyday living.

Hypersensitive hearing can be extremely difficult to cope with. The children I work with often develop defence mechanisms, such as tuning out of communication around them and putting their hands over their ears. This experience has given me insight into how their sensory experience may affect their routines and habits. I also wonder how less interaction with others impacts both the development and issues with their sensory systems.

By Leon Biss

My Brother’s Hypersensitive Hearing Story

My 28 year old brother, Paul, is on the Autistic Spectrum and has hypersensitive hearing.

– It impacts his communication skills and limits where he goes and what he does.

– Loud noises can cause him to get overexcited, suddenly hitting out/becoming verbally aggressive, or tune out from conversations around him.

– It gets him out of sync with those around him, as he hears sounds before others in the same space making it difficult to maintain a conversation with him.

– He’ll give our conversation and background noises equal attention.

For me, it leads to a disconnection between us and a feeling that he isn’t registering or interested in what we’re talking about.

Paul at our local beach.

Paul at our local beach.

His Successes

My brother’s support worker, John, is the driving force behind supporting Paul to overcome some of the barriers he faces with his hearing. We’ve had a fair bit success with improving things for Paul over the last few years. As a result some of his challenging behaviours have faded and his unique identity as an adult has blossomed.

Paul can now spend time alongside the family in a wider range of loud and noisy age appropriate environments, such as concerts, karaoke/discos, charity fun runs etc. He is needing less intense support to participate and has started to recognise when he needs time out in a quiet space.

Paul loves chaos, creating and adding to it, and is happiest when he is using his comedy to be at the centre of attention. Therefore one of the situations we’ve worked up to is spending time sitting having a drink in a pub with the five siblings. He stills needs 1:1 support to defuse and prevent some of his disruptive behaviours however the overall experience for all of us is more enjoyable and he has craved out his own way to participate in what we do and talk about.

Paul having a drink at my wedding, with our brother David.

Paul having a drink at my wedding, with our brother David.

The success we’ve had is built on John focusing for a long period on at improving Paul’s ability to participate within one familiar weekly noisy event, a karaoke/disco specifically for adults with learning difficulties. John and Paul have worked hard and consistently to build up the length of time Paul can ‘be in the thick of it’ before he needs time out. As well as improving Paul’s self-management of his ‘time out’ needs.

The Strategies Used

John achieved improved participation in the initial environment with a mixture of behavioural and sensory strategies. Fading the type of prompt used to direct him to take time out in a quiet space needed has worked well. As has preparing Paul before getting there, talking through the routine, what sounds to expect etc. Returning to the same quiet space and building back up to interacting with others, and tuning into what’s going on in the noisy space.

Some of the things that haven’t worked for us include using ear plugs or defenders. Paul also has touch sensitivity so can’t tolerate the feeling on his body, so they end up lost or broken within seconds. I eel uncomfortable with it as he is such a sociable character, I also think they would cause him distress from feeling excluded.

The Next Steps …

We are working with Paul to further develop his independence initiate communication when he needs to get out of a situation due to sound. He has more recently begun to take himself away when he needs a break from a noisy environment, which is a big step towards self-management for him.

Paul and me

Paul and me

If you have a loved one with Autism I urge you to observe their behaviour and consider whether it might be an issue. If so, try some of the simple strategies that I’ve mentioned above and check out these resources below for extra info and support.

I’d love to get your thoughts on hearing sensitivity so please leave a comment below to get the conversation flowing.

Resources – Information and Support:

What you can do to help …

– Prepare the person before you go about what the environment will be like, i.e. expected and unexpected sounds. Use visual resources, Social Stories, Sensory Stories etc.

– Make small changes to the environment to best support the person’s needs, e.g. whilst at home shut doors and windows to minimise distractions or stress from noises outside.

– Consider the use of ear plugs/defenders/listening to music.

– Consider creating a sensory room or space for the person to develop their how their sensory processing.

Links:

– National Autistic Society – Information and guidance about sensory sensitivities – ‘The Sensory World of Autism’

– National Autistic Society Helpline – partial confidential advice for families affected by Autism – 0808 800 4104

– Find out more about sensory processing disorder – Sensory Integration Network

– Find out what Sensory Stories are and how they might help

– Article from the Guardian – Misophonia first hand experience

– Misophonia Support Forum

– Advice on dealing with hypersensitivity as a symptom of stress and anxiety for adults

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