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Noise: Hide or Seek?

One my long drive today I heard a piece about a sound map being made of a nearby City.  It piqued my interest, as I have found myself so much more acutely aware of “noise” since Kimberly was born.  She has different reactions to sounds, depending on her environment, their volume, and whether or not she expects them.  While we briefly attended a (mostly) adult birthday party the other evening, I noticed (as I always do) how she wants to be near us and therefore, in the mix, but the chatter and rising volume as more guests arrived sends her into her own world.  She begins to stim to try and self-regulate and stares at the same page on a magazine endlessly as it is all really just too much.  I try to avoid situations like this if possible for her benefit, but sometimes I don’t have a choice.  Homeschooling her has allowed her to be out of a chaotic environment (i.e. Middle School) for the most part, and that is helpful in tackling the other learning challenges that she faces.

Ironically enough, my girl really, really loves music. That is a “noise” she appreciates, from classical to Broadway musicals, to 70s folk, to classic rock, and of course her fave for some time now…the Beatles. She connects with music and files singers, songs, and all the associated data away in her brain, recalling obscure facts and tunes with ease. Her recollection and accuracy related to music is not replicated in any other facet of her life, not to the same degree. Outside of her musical interests, the less complex the sounds are around her, the happier she is, and I wonder if what it must feel like inside her mind – just trying to manage the discomfort and overwhelming-ness of it all sometimes.

So, getting back to what drove me to contemplate this topic to begin with; as it turns out, a study to make a sound map was actually been completed on a national scale by the National Park Service:

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Audio Map of the US

I have wondered at times, how the ambient noise of where we live affects us: our health both physically and mentally, and was not surprised at all when I read this comment from a fellow Special Needs mom:

When my son was a toddler, he had a panic attack every time our washing machine clicked loudly to change cycles. He developed a phobia of all types of bells. He covered his ears and cried in crowds. But he became calm, even joyful, every single time we went for a walk in the woods, visited the library or entered any kind of religious environment: his stiff, tight muscles would relax instantly in my arms.

This made my heart hurt. To know that the wrong environment causes our child harm, and not be able to help them escape and eliminate that fear, pain, and/or burden for them is not something any parent wants. Issues with noise are so common in children with Autism, particularly those who suffer from a other Sensory Processing Issues as well. Our Kimberly can certainly check every single one on the list, regarding sensory issues yet some are certainly milder than others.

Not all sensitivities or “disorders” are tied to additional diagnoses such as Autism, ADHD, or SPD, some are stand alone. According to this article on sound sensitivities, the 5 most common sound related-issues are:

Hyperacusis is an intolerance of everyday environmental sounds and is often associated with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears.
Hypersensitive hearing of specific frequencies is often (but not always) associated with autism. A person is able to tolerate most sounds at normal levels, but certain frequencies are intolerable, especially above 70 decibels. For example, a person may have no difficulty being near a noisy dishwasher, but the higher frequency and higher decibel level of the vacuum cleaner will be painful.
Recruitment 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 sound perception that can be shocking and painful.
Phonophobia (also called ligyrophobia or sonophobia) is a persistent and unusual fear of sound, either a specific sound such as an alarm or general environmental sounds. People with phonophobia fear the possibility of being exposed to sounds, especially loud sounds, in present and future situations, and sometimes become homebound due to this anxiety.
Misophonia is an emotional reaction, most often anger or rage, to specific sounds. The trigger is usually a relatively soft sound related to eating or breathing, and may be connected to only one or a few people who are emotionally close to the affected person. For example, my friend Lisa’s son Nate becomes angry and runs out of the dining room because his father makes sounds while chewing food, but Nate does not become angry when his mother and sister make similar sounds.


For us it boils down to reminding ourselves (as parents) that our sound-sensitive child is interpreting her surroundings differently than we are, will have extreme reactions to what we do NOT perceive as extreme circumstances, and we need to do our best to help her manage herself in those circumstances when we cannot avoid being in a situation that is just “too-much” for her. Some days we are better at this than others, but it is a process for sure. Staying on top of her sensory-diet is helpful as well as making sure she gets physical activity during her day, restful sleep, and is not hungry or uncomfortable for others reasons.

Thinking about the noises around us that we can simply tune-out is very enlightening…amazing how different people can experience the same environment in such different ways!

Check this out:

HOW NOISY IS YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD? – NRP.ORG

*Credit for image at top of post: NPR article on how we all make sense of sound

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