Sound sensitivity is a common type of sensory sensitivity in autism. It can be uncomfortable and lead to sensory overload.
Sound sensitivity — also known as hyperacusis — is common in autistic people. Some noises might make you uncomfortable, especially loud or shrill noises, but many people are sensitive to quieter sounds, too.
While some noises annoy everyone, some autistic people may react very strongly to certain sounds. These noises cause unwanted intrusions that the person can’t ignore.
Hyperacusis can make it difficult to go out in public as you can’t always predict what sounds you will encounter. It can help to learn coping methods, like wearing headphones, having distractions ready, or making plans during quieter times of the day where possible.
Nearly 90% of autistic people experience some form of sensory hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) or hypersensitivity (under-responsiveness). This can include touch, smell, and hearing.
According to research, 50% to 70% of autistic people experience decreased tolerance for sound at some point. This can cause significant distress and anxiety, and can also lead to difficulties engaging in school or the workplace.
People receive sensory input from the environment, and their brain uses the information to understand the situation. Then, the body responds automatically to handle the experience. Some autistic people react differently to sensations because they process information differently than allistic (non-autistic) people.
Sensory sensitivities can make sensory input feel overwhelming. You may be unable to filter out irrelevant noises, becoming uncomfortable and distracted. It can lead to sensory overload.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) lists sensory perception disorders as a factor for an autism diagnosis because it is so common. Autism can affect adults and children and is a lifelong experience.
If someone has sound sensitivity, you might notice the following behaviors:
- covering their ears
- attempting to stop a sound source
- leaving the room when they hear a specific sound
- expressing discomfort in noisy environments
- feeling uncomfortable when hearing doorbells, radios, TVs, or vacuum cleaners
- having meltdowns when triggered by sound
Identifying sound sensitivity and working to manage it can make a difference. It can help you find appropriate ways to react and methods for easing the discomfort.
Different methods work for different people, so consider trying a few techniques until you find one that works.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
If sound sensitivity disrupts your daily life, you might consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy can help you learn coping skills and how to manage your emotions. The clinician will help you plan to cope with the sensitivity.
Avoid places you know will be noisy
Avoiding loud events can prevent your sound sensitivity from being triggered. Deciding to skip certain events can help you find greater enjoyment and peace in life. You likely can’t (or don’t want to) miss every event, so consider only avoiding places if you think it’s the best option.
Have a designated quiet space
Having a space for people to go for quiet time can help when they feel overwhelmed. It gives them a safe space to calm down and cope with their sensory overload.
Visit new places at quiet times
New locations can be overstimulating, but gradual adjustment can help. Consider visiting new places during a quiet time of day. You can then gradually increase your exposure and may find you get used to the new place over time.
Use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones
Many people use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to prevent overstimulation. Using these devices can be empowering, allowing you to access spaces you couldn’t otherwise and helping you participate in everyday life.
A 2018 study found that wearing noise-canceling headphones increased autistic kids’ participation in their home, community, and school. The authors suggest this method could be usefully employed by physical and occupational therapists.
You can use distractions when you can’t avoid triggering sounds. For example, consider bringing a journal along to write or doodle as a distraction. You might carry a comforting toy from home or use an iPad to manage sound sensitivity.
Some of the early signs of autism
- lack of eye contact
- not responding to your name by 9 months
- lack of facial expressions
- not noticing when someone is upset or hurt by 2 years old
- not playing with other children by 3 years old
- not engaging in imaginative play by 4 years old
- lining up toys or other objects and getting upset if it is changed
- constantly repeating words or phrases
- getting upset over minor changes
- obsessive interests
- getting upset when your routine gets disrupted
- flapping hands, rocking, spinning
- delayed developmental skills
Many autistic people experience sound sensitivity that interferes with their daily tasks. Recognizing the signs can help you find potential solutions to manage the issue.
If you or someone you know experiences sound sensitivity, it doesn’t have to disrupt living a fulfilling life. You can keep trying new methods to manage it until you find one that works.