Noise Sensitivity in Individuals With Autism

Certain sounds are particularly annoying to us all collectively. For many people, thinking of the sound of someone scraping their nails down a blackboard or the high-pitched squeal of microphone feedback can be excruciating to hear. However, if you are on the autism spectrum, many of the everyday noises other people take for granted can be very painful and cause unwanted intrusions.

There are links between autism and auditory sensitivity. If an individual has autism, he/she may either overreact or completely ignore many ordinary sensations, smells, sights, and sounds. It is thought that this is because they are processing information from their senses differently than other people who are not on the spectrum. For instance, people on the spectrum might not filter out noises that are irrelevant, or they might find that certain sounds can be very uncomfortable and distracting.

The world is noisy, but a person can easily live a full life without fireworks shows, major league sporting events, and rock concerts. When sound sensitivity interferes with everyday activities, then it is time to look more carefully and seek guidance. A systematic approach to sound sensitivity can lead to greater enjoyment of relationships and increased inclusion in community-based activities

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be oversensitive or undersensitive to noise, light, clothing or temperature. Their senses which are sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, take in either too much or too little information from the environment around them. Typically developing individuals have sensory sensitivities too, but they often outgrow them. These sensitivities tend to last longer in children with ASD, although they do decrease over time.

Not all individuals with ASD have sensory sensitivities, but some of them might have several. When individuals with autism are oversensitive or overreactive to sensory experiences, it is called hypersensitivity. These people might cover their ears when they hear loud noises, or eat only foods with a certain texture. When individuals are undersensitive or under reactive to their environment, it is known as hyposensitivity. These people might wear thick clothes on a hot day, or repeatedly rub their arms and legs against things.

Some of them can have both over sensitivities and under sensitivities in different senses or even the same sense. For example, they might be oversensitive to some sound frequencies and undersensitive to others. Sensory problems can also affect the person’s whole family or people around them basically. For example, if a person is oversensitive to noise, it can limit where his family goes or the kinds of activities his family does.

The opposite of sensitivity to sounds is the desire to create noise by clapping or banging on objects. There are some activities that can help an individual with autism fulfill their need for noise. Making excessive noise can indicate auditory sensory-seeking tendencies. Usually, individuals with a hyposensitive auditory system are unable to register sound until they have additional input.

Sound Sensitivity

Being Under-Sensitive

  • They may only hear sounds in one ear, the other ear having an only partial hearing or none at all.
  • They may not acknowledge particular sounds.
  • They might enjoy crowded, noisy places or bang doors and objects.
  • You could help individuals with autism who are being under-sensitive by using visual supports to back up verbal information, and ensuring that other people are aware of the under-sensitivity so that they can communicate effectively. You could ensure that the experiences they enjoy are included in their daily timetable, to ensure this sensory need is met.

Being Over-Sensitive

  • Noise can be magnified and sounds become distorted and muddled for them.
  • They may be able to hear conversations in the distance.
  • They have the inability to cut out sounds – notably background noise, leading to difficulties concentrating.

Hypersensitivity in Individuals With Autism

Some individuals with autism are hypersensitive, so seeing, hearing or feeling something makes them feel bad. They can wave their hands, slide back and forth, or make strange noises to activate their senses. Children with extreme sensitivity may have trouble understanding where the objects are, just when they see the outline, they can turn the edges around the objects so they realize what is happening. Individuals with autism with this feature can look at the lights, focus on the sun or a bright bulb. When they enter an unusual room, they have to touch everything to sit around.

Hypersensitivity in individuals with autism means that individuals with autism have very sharp views. For example, they can pay attention to the most fluffy pieces on the carpet, they complain about dust flying in the air, they do not like bright lights, and they may even be afraid of sharp light flashes. Children with autism may even notice the flickering of light under fluorescent lights and for them the whole room flickers.

Individuals with hyper-listening sensitivity often sleep very lightly, are afraid of sudden unpredictable sounds (such as telephone ringing or baby crying), terrified by storms, crowds, and haircuts. They often cover their ears when the noise is painful for them, but others in the room may not be aware of any disturbing noises. Sometimes overly emotional children make repetitive sounds to prevent other disturbing sounds.

Individuals with hypersensitivity autism look for sound around them and want to lean on electronic devices and hear the treble sound. They like the loudest parts of the house. They make movements to increase their hearing, such as knocking on the door, tearing the paper, or making noise by squeezing it.

Children with odor sensitivity cannot tolerate the smell of people or objects, even though their families are unaware of any odors. They smell, they move away from people, and they constantly try to wear the same clothes. For some, any food smell or taste is very strong and they refuse to eat, no matter how hungry.

Individuals with autism do not want them to be touched. When people around them try to hug them, they pull themselves back because they are afraid of being touched. Even the slightest touch can make them panic. Parents often make a lot of effort to wash their child’s hair or cut their nails. Many of them refuse to wear certain clothes as they cannot tolerate the tissue on their skin.

Some children with autism overreact to heat or cold. They avoid wearing shoes. Children with vestibular hypersensitivity have difficulty changing directions, walking or running on rough or unstable surfaces. Individuals with proprioceptive hypersensitivity keep their bodies in strange positions and have difficulty manipulating small objects.

Understanding Noise Sensitivities in Individuals With Autism


This is characterized by an emotional reaction, such as rage or anger, to certain sounds. The trigger for this is usually a soft sound that is often related to breathing or eating and can be connected to people who are close to you. For example, people on the autism spectrum may be driven to distraction by the sound their significant other makes when they chew their food. However, a similar noise made by someone else may not even bother them in the slightest.

Phonophobia (Sonophobia/ Ligyrophobia)

It is an unusual and persistent fear of either specific or general environmental sounds. If people on the autism spectrum suffer from phonophobia, they may try to avoid ever exposing themselves to the sounds they are scared of, and could in time end up being housebound due to their anxiety.


Often accompanied by tinnitus, hyperacusis is intolerance of everyday generalized environmental noise.


It is a rare condition experienced by some people on the autism spectrum. An experience goes in through one sensory system and out through another. So a person might hear a sound but experience it as a color. In other words, they will ‘hear’ the color red.


It is directly related to sensorineural hearing loss. It is defined as an atypical growth in the perception of loudness. Hair cells in the inner ear typically “translate” sound waves into nerve signals. Damaged or dead hair cells cannot perceive sound, but at a certain decibel level, surrounding healthy hair cells are “recruited” to transmit, and the person experiences a sudden sharp increase in the sound perception that can be shocking and painful.

Helping Individuals With Autism With Sensory Sensitivities

What you do to help the child with autism spectrum disorder and sensory sensitivities depend on how the individual reacts to the environment. If the individual is easily overwhelmed by surroundings, you could try some techniques.

You can have a ‘quiet space’ the child can go to when he/she feels overwhelmed. You can give the child extra time to take in what you are saying. You can introduce the child to new places at quiet times, gradually increasing the amount of time she spends there in later visits. Let the child try earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to help with sound sensitivities.

It is also a good idea to speak with people ahead of time about the needs of a child with autism spectrum disorder if you are going somewhere – they might be able to adjust a few things to make it easier. For example, if you are making a playdate for your child, you could ask for it to be in a place that is familiar to your child. You could look out for cinemas that have ‘sensory-friendly’ movie screenings.

If a child with autism needs more stimulation from the environment, you could other suggestions. You can arrange for extra playtime outside. You can give him/her toys that are extra-stimulating, like playdough or a squishy ball. They can have a certain time of the day to listen to music or bounce on the trampoline. You can speak loudly in an exaggerated way to your child if she tends to ignore sounds.

Getting Help For Sensory Sensitivities

Occupational therapists can help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) deal with their environments, including coping with sensory sensitivities, staying on task and developing motor coordination and balance. They can also help families come up with appropriate strategies if the child self-stimulates or ‘stims’.

Dietitians and speech pathologists might be able to help if the child has taste and smell sensitivities that also cause eating issues. If families think some sensory issues are happening because the child isn’t seeing properly, they could get their child’s vision checked by an optometrist. Just like other children (normally developed children), the child with autism could have a visual problem.

If the child ignores sounds and people speaking, parents could get his/her hearing checked by an audiologist. This will help parents rule out any hearing problems. If the child’s behavior hurts herself or other people around the, it is best to get professional advice. A good first step is talking with a pediatrician or psychologist.

Strategies to Help Individuals With Autism Respond to Noise Sensitivity

  • You can make a list of safe spaces your loved one can visit where they will not hear the sounds they are sensitive to.
  • You can speak with them about volunteering at a quiet place, such as the local library or bookstore.
  • You may schedule regular quiet breaks so that after being near a busy and noisy place, they will have some relief.
  • You may want to try muffling the noise of the bottom of the chair legs scraping on the floor by putting cut tennis balls on the bottom of the chair legs.
  • People on the autism spectrum can have earplugs or noise-canceling headphones on hand in case of unwanted sounds.
  • Soundproofing, noise-reduction and sound absorption materials can be used within the home to minimize the negative impact of unwelcome noise effects on individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. Soundproofing a room, for example, can provide much-needed relief.
  • Install carpets can be used in order to muffle sounds.
  • You can encourage your loved one who has autism to get out and take a walk in nature on a daily basis.
  • Expose your loved one who is on the spectrum to the source of the noise they have difficulty in handling. If they can’t bear the sound of the vacuum cleaner, allow them to handle a machine when it is not on. Perhaps turn it to the lowest setting and see if they would like to try using the vacuum. Practice this little and often, and you may just find that they get used to the noise source.

Creating A Plan to Deal With Sounds

1. Know The Types of Sensitivity

There are several different types of noise sensitivity, and there are different treatments for each type. Consult with an audiologist to pinpoint which type of sensitivity is affecting your quality of life. There are 5 most common types of sensitivities which are hyperacusis, hypersensitive hearing of specific frequencies, recruitment, phonophobia, and misophonia but keep in mind that a person may be affected by more than one issue.

2. Provide Relief

Headphones and earplugs offer instant comfort and relief. Noise-canceling headphones are the most effective ones because they replace irritating environmental noise by producing calming white noise. Earplugs are usually made of either foam or wax, and it is worth trying both types to determine which is more comfortable.

However, most audiologists, physicians, therapists, and educators recommend against frequent use of headphones and earplugs, because a person can quickly become dependent on them. In the long run, blocking out noise can reduce coping skills and increase social withdrawal.

3. Identify Safe Environments

You can make a list of their “safe” places and increase their participation there. Depending on an individual’s needs, this could mean volunteering at the library, attending library storytime, taking a walk in a nature area every day, visiting a park that is near a railroad crossing or helicopter landing pad, and attending services, prayers or social events more often.

4. Allow Control Over Some Types of Noise

At its heart, anxiety is a fear of being unable to control reactions and situations.

5. Allow Distractions

There is a huge power of distraction in pain management. By giving a person something like an iPad to focus on or an unusual privilege such as bringing along a favorite toy from home, it becomes possible to direct attention away from the offending noise.

6. Gradually Increase Exposure and Proximity

The cure for a fear of snakes does not involve throwing a person into a snake pit. Similarly, relief from noise sensitivity requires gradual desensitization and not a sudden exposure. Start by observing something from afar and take a step closer with each opportunity.

7. Alternate Noisy and Quiet

You should always take a break before the noise upsets individuals on the autism spectrum so that they will want to return for more fun after resting.

8. Hyperacusis Retraining Therapy (Tinnitus Retraining Therapy)

Auditory Integration Therapy (AIT) is sometimes suggested to people with noise sensitivity, but there is very little peer-reviewed research published on the topic of AIT, and the existing research has generally not been favorable.

However, there is plenty of medical research on Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), which involves listening to broadband pink noise to habituate a person to ringing in the ears. Pink noise contains all audible frequencies, but with more power in the lower frequencies than in the higher frequencies. Most people report that pink noise sounds “flat.” Because of this, it helps to rebuild tolerance to sound.

9. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Physicians widely recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy for phobias and anxiety because it teaches a person to self-manage emotions and coping skills. The goal of the therapy is to reframe a person’s thought processes about the cause for anxiety in order to increase the quality of life.

10. Consider Supplements

Many people with tinnitus or hyperacusis are deficient in magnesium or other minerals. Consult with a physician to determine if nutritional supplements may be able to help.

11. Avoid Food Additives

Certain food additives, especially those in the salicylate family, are associated with noise sensitivity. In fact, medical literature refers to salicylate as a “tinnitus inducer.” Special diets, such as the Feingold Diet or a diverse whole foods diet, eliminate those additives and may help reduce sensitivity. Consult with a physician or dietician before making any major dietary changes.

Recommended Products

Fun and Function’s Noise Reduction Headphones/Earmuffs for Kids Ear Protection for Children with Sensory Issues Autism, Auditory Processing Disorder or Sound Sensitivity

This headphone minimizes noise and maximizes concentration. These headphones block out extraneous noise but still allow kids to hear nearby conversations and participate in their surroundings. Ideal for noisy environments like lunchrooms, sporting events, airports or birthday parties. It could be the best thing for your child with an autism spectrum disorder. Supports those with auditory defensiveness or hyperacusis, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and sensory integration disorder.

Snug Kids Earmuffs/Hearing Protectors – Adjustable Headband Ear Defenders For Children and Adults

It is ideal for blocking noise caused by large crowds, airports, sporting events, garden, and household tools, or any other troublesome noise or sound. It is perfect for kids on the autism spectrum for blocking out crowds and other triggers, as well. They cancel just the right level of noise; quiet enough that the monster trucks aren’t piercing but allowing enough sound in that he/she could still hear people talking to him/her at close range. They fit well and are adjustable. Very good quality.

Dr.meter Kids Protective Earmuffs with Noise Blocking Children Earmuffs for Sleeping, Studying, Shooting, Babies 27NRR Adjustable Head Band, EM100

It is specially sized and designed for babies and children with a heavily adjustable padded headband and ear pads. These things are literally a lifesaver when you have a child who is sensitive to noise. The color makes for easy spotting when the kids tend to wander. These are great for shooting, the monster truck show, or any time you want to protect your kids’ hearing. Much better than risking a loose fit with adult earmuffs!

3M PELTOR X5A Over-the-Head Ear Muffs, Noise Protection, NRR 31 dB, Construction, Manufacturing, Maintenance, Automotive, Woodworking, Heavy Engineering, Mining

If you want good sound protection, there is no doubt that these will do it for you. Great for those working in noisy environments or trying to get some quiet time at home when relatives come. Overall it does its job perfectly and is better than any other noise protector in the market. Can’t complain about the quality – works perfectly. Definitely a must and a great buy for any ASD family!

ZOHAN EM030 Kids Ear Protection Safety Ear Muffs, [Upgraded] Hearing Protectors for Children Have Sensory Issues, Adjustable Noise Reduction Earmuffs for Concerts, Fireworks, Air Shows – Nebula Print

Design for children who have sensory issues and need extra hearing protection. And these are perfect for air shows, concerts, fireworks, travel, sports events, yard work, etc. Rather than earplugs, these muffs are a truly over-ear design which provides more comfort, also no swallow hazards for your kids. They don’t completely cancel noise, but they reduce it.

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