Most every person has sensitivities and preferences. For example, some cannot handle much spice, and others love to dowse their food with hot sauce. Some love to be in crowds, and others avoid them. People with Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and others often display certain sensitivities such as to movement, to touch, to taste and frequently to sound. When the person experiences frequent discomfort preventing him from participating in everyday activities, the sensitivity is out of the ordinary and may need to be addressed. In this Challenges to Champions Blog, we have focused on the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses, and now we will focus on the auditory system.
In the USA, we are taught from our childhood that our sense of hearing is one of the “five” senses, but if you are a regular reader of this blog or have a sensory impaired person in your life, you already know that there are more senses than just five. The organ responsible for receiving and interpreting sound is more complex than just your ear. Sounds travel to your head and are picked up by the curves and valleys of your ears. They travel a short way to your middle ear where the eardrum is located. The eardrum vibrates and causes three tiny bones to move, like a telegraph transmitting a message. From there, the vibrations go to the inner ear to start to be decoded with the brain ultimately interpreting the data and figuring out what and if action should be taken. Remember that our brain is responsible for keeping us safe, is our master security organizer, along with many other functions. Some sounds are benign and do not cause us to change what we are doing and act. These would be familiar expected noise and background “white” noise. It could be people quietly talking, the sound of a soft breeze blowing through the trees, or relaxing music. Our brain is programmed to listen for sudden unexpected loud or unusual sounds, especially those that occur close to our bodies. What a great warning system! A sudden loud crash happens behind you, and you may literally jump to attention, becoming very alert to assess the danger then act. And this is what we are mainly concerned with in this article, the “alarm system.”
Our kiddos that are hypersensitive to sound are often experiencing this exact situation, but their alarm system is going off way too soon to a stimulus that is not as threatening as they perceive. What may seem like “overreacting” to you is actually the child responding appropriately to what their brain is telling them. They may learn with experience and by interpreting others’ lack of alarm that there is no cause for fear, but still, the child is uncomfortable and maybe shaken.
Children with auditory hypersensitivity make a deep impact in their family’s life. Imagine attending a family gathering such as a party or holiday celebration when you have an individual who cannot bear loud crowds. Some indoor places can be so uncomfortable because of the way they echo, such as school gyms and indoor pools. Then there is the one child on the playground who happens to suddenly scream with glee right behind your hypersensitive child. The other child runs off, and your child is still reeling from this “assault” long after. Yet, he has the pressure to behave as if nothing is bothering him. Walking in a crowded hallway, sitting on the bus. No wonder these kids often have meltdowns by the time they get home from school or other busy demanding days.
So, what can we do for our individuals with auditory hypersensitivity? Thankfully there are a variety of methods. One thing many families find helpful are noise-canceling headphones for those special occasions where it’s just too much to handle such as sporting events and going to the airport. Schools sometimes use headsets that help students only hear the teacher’s voice so they can focus better. Therapeutic methods exist such as sound therapy. The Children’s Therapy Center, Inc. has been using various sound therapies for many years such as iLs, Integrated Listening Systems. You can find another blog on this site for more information on this therapy. If your therapist has asked you to perform the Wilbarger protocol of deep pressure massage with a surgical scrub brush followed by joint compressions, this desensitizing method can help to reduce overall hypersensitivity, such as from sound, touch, and at the mouth. We have seen auditory hypersensitivity reduce with sensory processing therapy.
The inner ear organs we referred to above have more jobs than just helping with your hearing. The Vestibular System is mainly located here which assists with your sense of balance and movement, especially the positions of the head. It works closely with the sense of vision to help us stay upright. Keeping that in mind, you can see how complex our bodies are and how when one part is not working properly it can affect the overall function of the individual. When this part is specifically dedicated to keeping us safe, any dysfunction can make a deep impact on the person’s ability to feel comfortable anywhere. The more you know, the more you can understand what our highly sensitive individuals are dealing with each day. Please contact our office to learn more and to schedule an evaluation if you think your child may be dealing with any of these issues, 281-480-5648.
Nancy E.A. Weiss, MOT, OTR/L