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For those with auditory sensitivities, it is possible to desensitize adverse reactions and reprogram the emotional memory system so that people can develop a healthy and positive relationship with sound.
Finding the best way to support or overcome sound sensitivity is essential to feel an overall sense of safety and comfort in their lives. Many people face challenges with these overwhelming sensitivities daily, which may prevent them from participating in a family or social gathering or situations where they are trying to focus but get distracted by sounds.
Here you’ll find more than just a list of compensatory strategies for helping sound sensitivities, such as noise-canceling headphones for children with autism. You’ll learn what causes such strong emotional reactions to sound, which techniques are most commonly used to avoid or minimize those reactions, and an evidence-based solution used by therapists for a long-term, natural approach to reducing sound and other sensory sensitivities.
Sound sensitivities can be an overwhelming experience that can occur suddenly or arise gradually. The person may appear to be in a state of crisis depending on the sound’s physical and emotional impact on them.
As many people know, auditory hypersensitivities make some sounds painful and unpredictable, so covering their ears is a natural way to protect themselves, but other responses may include:
As a parent, you know it’s not always possible to avoid situations where sound sensitivities frequently occur. For example, a child who is too distracted by hearing the noise of classmates’ pencils on paper can’t just avoid being in class to be able to focus.
In the same way, an adult with misophonia, or an extreme irritation to the sound of eating, can’t simply avoid being around others who eat for the rest of their lives.
For these reasons, it becomes necessary to seek ways to help by either minimizing the irritation to sounds or minimizing the reaction to that irritation.
Typically, this results in one of two options;
Many people are becoming aware of another option: The Listening Program, which is used by healthcare and other professionals with long-term benefits that can rewire how the brain receives and responds to sound while promoting emotional regulation, improving thinking skills, and more.
To demonstrate the long-term effects of each of these three options, we will highlight each one individually.
It’s common to see kids with autism or auditory hypersensitivity wearing noise-canceling headphones to minimize the discomfort of too much noise in different environments.
In the short term, noise-canceling headphones can allow a person to be present, focus, and maintain more emotional regulation in otherwise overstimulating environments. They can be the means by which a sensitive person is able to show up for playdates, class, restaurants, or public spaces without feeling overstimulated by noise.
When considering long-term consequences, the benefits are not as positive. This can become a maladaptive compensatory strategy if the person relies on them excessively.
By training the brain to function in environments only when most of the sound is blocked, a person can actually become more overstimulated by other noises when they aren’t wearing headphones. When the brain feels relaxed, and in a state of calm only when all noise is blocked out, it can become even more sensitive to less intense noises, making a person rely even more heavily on noise-canceling headphones in various environments.
Essentially, the headphones allow a person to be in various environments where noise is canceled out, but the underlying hypersensitivity still exists and can be heightened as the brain learns that “no noise” is the only way to feel emotional regulation.
Wearing noise-canceling headphones will also limit social engagement since listening to what people are saying will be difficult, if not impossible.
Our brains are meant to take in noise, process it, and respond adaptively to it. That can happen only when the underlying sensitivity is not masked. This is why another popular option is exposure therapy.
The opposing theory to supporting auditory hypersensitivity is Exposure Therapy. With this approach, a person identifies that avoiding or minimizing noise is not convenient or possible long-term and therefore focuses on changing the emotional response to noise by continuously exposing the person to sounds.
It’s common to hear stories of parents turning on vacuum cleaners during naptime or intentionally placing sensitive kids in loud environments even when they resist it to help them “overcome” the adverse reaction to noise.
This method assumes that if the sensitive person overreacts to sounds, they need to be exposed to them more so the brain can habituate.
Brain science shows us that isn’t how the brain works. When the brain perceives a sound as “too much”, it triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response. While we know that the human brain can adapt or “habituate”, it rarely occurs during the fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response will become triggered when a person is bombarded with sounds they feel assaulted by. It would be difficult to expect them to respond in a socially appropriate manner if they are literally fighting their internal responses. For many, continuous exposure to sounds may not change the hypersensitivity or the adverse primal response. So, how can we expect their behavior to change?
Over the long term, a person can learn to change their behavior, but it will always be an internal battle of ignoring what is truly happening on the inside. If the behavior doesn’t change, the result can be the opposite of habituating, causing even more resistance long-term to various sounds.
There is a third option, which includes a combination of retraining the way the brain perceives sound, so there is no longer a need for constant reliance on noise-canceling headphones and resetting the emotional response to the sound, which would negate the need for exposure therapy.
Research is clear that the underlying problem with auditory sensitivity is not the auditory system itself, but the connections between the auditory system and the emotional system leading the person to have an oversensitivity to sound and respond with negative emotional reactions when listening.
This research can be very promising for those who have auditory sensitivities, rely on noise-canceling headphones, or are wondering about exposure therapy. The Listening Program is a gentle, natural, and easy way to reduce or even eliminate sensitives to allow a person to feel more comfortable being in situations that otherwise would feel overwhelming.
The Listening Program (TLP) is a neuroscience-based music listening therapy. By listening to scientifically designed music for just 15-minutes per day, listeners demonstrate positive emotional and calming reactions to sound long-term.
“The music is acoustically modified to lead the person to react less negatively to sounds and, thus, reduces the sound sensitivity while opening the auditory system to listen more effectively.”
When using TLP, especially through specially designed air and bone conduction headphones, the sound signal is believed to travel along both the classical and non-classical auditory pathways.
One of the first outcomes often seen in children undergoing TLP training is that they are calmer. This is a good indicator that the listening has tapped into the emotional areas of the limbic system via the non-classical auditory pathways.
Throughout the training, children are often reported to: be more attentive to sounds, better able to detect sounds they hear, and more verbally communicative, likely because they are more open to listening. As the training proceeds, the child continues to relax and becomes calmer when listening.
It is hypothesized that this is because a reprogramming of emotional memory in the amygdala is occurring. The training reprograms listening and sounds as positive experiences and helps improve stress regulation so the child no longer has fight/flight responses to non-threatening sounds.
When the child is in real-world situations and hears sounds that may have been frightening or annoying in the past, the training allows the child to process the sounds in a more neutral manner. For many children, the use of a program such as TLP is sufficient to reprogram their systems so that sound is no longer frightening.”
Read Research Article
Essentially, through the use of music, a person is able to experience sounds without triggering the fight or flight response, which then leads to a more desirable response. This eliminates the need to avoid the noise with noise-canceling headphones or bombard a person with that noise through exposure therapy.
Because TLP is a gentle, natural, and easy-to-use program to support auditory sensitivities, many therapists use it with their own clients and see incredible results.
A 7-year-old girl with Autism has been using TLP Spectrum for about two months. She has extreme noise sensitivities, and any slight sound can throw her into chaos. She must wear her noise-canceling headphones in any external environment other than her home or place her hands over her ears, which inhibits the use of her hands for functional tasks. These extreme noise sensitivities hinder her ready state for learning. She often melts down when adults or others are talking without including her directly.
I have been using TLP consistently with my clients to this day. I am continuously impressed by the significant gains and progress that our clients make.– Nancy Marin, Occupational Therapist
Recently, during our OT session, I realized that I was able to have a conversation with the child’s caregiver while she freely explored the room. Another therapist then entered with her client, a young male with Autism, and we were all talking together. Through the chaos, this usually would create a huge meltdown, which, fortunately for us, never happened. The caregiver and I were so excited to witness this accomplishment! The parents are reporting a decrease in noise sensitivity at home as well.”
Read Nancy’s full article here
Recent research states, “It has demonstrated that after going through TLP, children, adolescents, and adults find their abilities to tolerate sounds improve for both loud sounds and other annoying sounds. Many find listening to be more pleasurable and positive so that negative emotional reactions rarely, if ever, occur.”
While living with an auditory sensitivity can feel overwhelming, new research suggests that a person doesn’t have to rely on either noise-canceling headphones or exposure therapy to see long-term benefits. The Listening Program offers a safe, gentle, and enjoyable solution to reduce those underlying sensitivities and the emotional reactions that come with them.
VIEW THIS ARTICLE AS PDF
I am a Program Manager at Advanced Brain Technologies, and I have a Masters degree in Special Education. I learned early in my career that there’s a deeper root to almost any difficulty in life.
It is very rewarding for me to show people how music can help their brains function better and achieve better sleep, less stress, better communication, or healing. Seeing people’s potential and helping them achieve it is my passion.
I started my career wanting to help neurodiverse kids find ways to work with their strengths and achieve their goals. I became obsessed with learning about sensory processing and ways to support it to help people reach their full potential without invasive procedures or harsh methods, which I share in my book, Taming Tantrums: Simple and Positive Ways to Address Challenging Behavior.
I’ve used what I learn every day in my own home with my kids, and now, I get to combine that knowledge with my work at ABT.
Before ABT, I worked as a special education teacher, a supervisor of an Early Intervention Program, and then created my own business coaching parents of kids with challenging behavior.
In my spare time, I enjoy being outside hiking, biking, seeing every waterfall possible, doing yoga, or spending time with people I love.
Please reach out if there is something I can help you with. I look forward to supporting you!
Tags Exposure Therapy, hyperacousis, Hypersensitivity, listening therapy, Noise Canceling Headphones, sound sensitivity, The Listening Program
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