By Clara H
Common statements I get told are, "why are you covering your ears?" and "It's not loud to me". Many individuals on the autism spectrum experience volume differently than neurotypicals. Most of us may not even realize that our way of interpreting sound is not the same as most. Which I frankly do not understand how people can go a day without pressing their hands over their ears, so it is hard for me to explain it without thinking about the reasons. After I had some thought and did research I came up with a great way to describe it.
Why we do it:
The main reason we are sensitive to sound is the fact that we can hear every sound around us at the exact same volume. We are able to hear things that others my not even notice or know that it has a sound. For example, if I was having a conversation with you in a room with air conditioning, the sound of the AC in the distance would mash with your voice causing me to have to use a lot of energy to try and block out the noises so I can process what you are saying. If I mention what I hear you may not know how I even noticed it in the first place.
We usually don't bring up what is going through their ears and if we are having a hard time tuning out the background sound sense there is nothing anyone can do about it. It does not help to rase your voice or to turn up the TV because the other fracas we receive end up blaring to match with the loudest thing in the room. It causes us to be in physical pain. Being in crowded places is the most discomferting for us from all that's going on.
When talking to someone with ASD from a distance we may not be able to tell where you are. Autistic blogger, Jamie from itoldyouiwassick.com did an experiment with her friend on this. She had her friend snap his fingers around her while she had her eyes closed then pointed to where she thought the sound was coming from. Each time she was told to be incorrect.
There has been times where I will look for where a sound is coming from and question if I actually heard something. Many of us do get auditory hallucinations. Mostly of random things we heard. We can't tell if what we hear is real or fake. We might hear the sound of cars going by even though we are inside. Our brains tend to echo the sound from earlier in the day either right after or delayed. There are even individuals who experience both.
For me it's right after. When I was a child the game Freeze Dance was difficult for me because I could not tell when the music stoped. On the other hand, a friend of mine gets delayed echos. He hears sounds when he is trying to go to bed at night. It makes it hard for him to fall asleep.
Sensory challenges involving noise come with several difficulties including insomnia. Some people with ASD can hear almost everything they heard throughout the day when laying in bed. Others hear one sound repeating itself over and over. It's almost like when you have a song stuck in your head.
I and many others can also hear things that we have never experienced before. We might hear voices that are not recognizable. Most of the time we hear these sounds when feeling tired. It is possible to hear them when we have a lot of energy. I'm not exactly sure what causes us to get exposed to that. It could be from anxiety or overwhelming thoughts.
Those who get auditory hallucinations can get irritated by them and cover their ears to try and get rid of them. The reason we are putting our hands over our ears may not be for the reason you assume.
How to know it's happening:
My response to this question besides covering their ears is stimming. Some sensory overload cases are more noticeable than others. One person may be rocking back-in-forth and making sounds with their mouth, while another just closes there eyes during a conversation. You have to know the person you are with well enough to know what their stims are. Get to know the individual and try to pick up on what they do when they are upset.
Some stims include hand flapping, pacing, humming, and fidgeting with their clothes, hands, or hair. Once again, it all depends on the person. People with Autism all have different things they do when overwhelmed.
Some people do not even have stims. In that case watch to see if they are covering their ears or are trying to get to a quiet place, like by a door or in a corner. Do they seem sad or not acting like themselves?
If the individual is verbal they could mention the noise they hear to you. They could say things like, "It's loud in here" or "do you hear that?" The most important thing to remember when they say things like that is to not respond with a statement like, "It's all in your head. It is not loud in here".
How to help:
Instead of making them more upset by saying irritating things, try taking them to a quieter room. They could be so upset that they can't think straight. You need to step up and help them decide what to do.
Things you might want to consider trying is going on a walk with them, taking them to get a drink of water, or helping them take deep breaths. If you are in a public place and none of those things seem to be working, ask them if they need to go home. Of corse, only ask them this if you can help get them home safely.
Noise cancelling headphones may help in some situations. Those are headphones that are made specifically to block out the sound. Find the right pair by checking out the links at the bottom of the page.
Some people with ASD rely on stim toys. They are toys and other gadgets that help distract them from sensory overload. I personally like the ones I can bend easily with my hands. Other times I appreciate a toy I can put in my mouth. Links to good stim toys will also be listed at the bottom of the page.
To prevent auditory sensory overload, take note of what their triggers are. During a sensory overload, examine the area to see what could be making them frustrated. It can help so you can prepare for the next time. Crowds cause sensory overload for me. So I know not to attend many large parties or big restaurants. When I do go someplace that I think will have a huge amount of people I bring noise cancelling headphones so I am less likely to have a meltdown.
When going out with someone on the Autism spectrum, make sure to tell them to bring headphones or a toy with them incase it is loud. Some may assume that they will not realize that they need to bring something to help them. In that case, you can put something in your bag for them. If they have a tendency of loosing things, have them give it back to you if they don't want it anymore.
Learning techniques to help someone calm down is very important, especially for those who have ASD. It may take time before you find something that works. Don't get annoyed if one thing does not go well. It does take time to find the right strategy for the right person.
To conclude, people with Autism cover their ears to block out noise that could be current or from the past. Sometimes it could be a hallucination or something you didn't realize had a sound. It is always important to ask them if they need to go to a quieter location and/or giving them a tool to help block out the sound.
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