How Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Help with ASD and Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders affect up to 1% of the population according to most experts, and as diagnosis improves the true figure might turn out to be a good bit higher. From a little-understood condition only a few years ago ASD has now become better recognized, and we know a lot more about how it affects people and how to cope. There’s no doubt that there are challenges, though, because the modern world was designed for neurotypical people and it can be stressful for others. One of the worst causes of stress is noise.

People with ASD process information slightly differently, and one of the common effects of that is extreme sensitivity to sounds. All of our senses work in the same basic way, through nerve endings receiving information from the environment and transmitting it to the brain. The mechanism by which information is received differs – for example the ears convert changes in air pressure into vibration, which is then detected by nerves – but ultimately it is all received by the brain in the same form; a stream of nerve impulses. The brain then uses the information it receives to construct a model of the environment that can be interacted with at a human level. Many people with ASD also have Sensory Processing Disorder, where the information generated by the senses is interpreted differently. In turn this affects the way the person perceives the environment, and changes how they react to it. Sometimes the effects are beneficial; autistic children are much better at detecting movement and many types of pattern than neurotypical ones are. In other situations it can be distracting, uncomfortable or distressing.

The actual effects of autism on the senses vary between individuals. Some people have hyposensitivity, where they only react to very strong stimuli. A more common effect, and one that requires a good set of coping strategies, is hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivity to sound can show up in different ways but the common factor is the person is a lot more aware of sounds, even very quiet ones, than a neurotypical person in the same environment. This can have several effects:

  • Sounds seem magnified and might become distorted, confused or even painful
  • Background noise cannot be ignored or filtered out, leading to constant distraction
  • Very quiet sounds, like distant conversations, can be easily heard

Most people simply don’t realize how noisy our world really is, because we’re all used to tuning out sounds that aren’t relevant to us. When a noise is loud and intrusive enough that we can’t do that we look for another solution – leaving a noisy bar, or installing soundproofing to suppress traffic noise. Once we’ve dealt with those, however, we happily get on with things and barely notice everything else that’s going on in the background. If you’ve ever been deep in the woods on a windless day, though, you probably remember how silent it was and how every tiny sound seemed magnified. That’s because we’re used to coping with a level of noise that, even in a room we think is quiet, is actually remarkably high.

An autistic person who’s hypersensitive to sound finds it difficult to cope with “normal” levels of noise. Distant traffic, a washing machine in the basement, the ticking of clocks or even the constant hum emitted by many electrical appliances can become distractions too obvious to be ignored. Sounds like closing doors that are perfectly acceptable for most people can be unbearably loud or frightening. All of this can have a huge impact on every aspect of life. The sufferer is unable to relax, or even to sleep properly – many people with ASD suffer from sleep disorders because they’re constantly woken by sounds. Concentrating on a task becomes almost impossible. Interacting with others, already a challenge for many autistic people, is made more difficult – it can be impossible to separate out conversations from other noises, even ones that seem much quieter.

Many of the behaviors associated with autism sufferers turn out to be coping strategies for hypersensitivity to sound. For example children who repeatedly cover their ears are often protecting themselves from noises that they find distracting or unpleasant. Children who make humming sounds may be trying to mask background noise. The problem is that while these strategies can be effective at dealing with the hypersensitivity they often cause their own issues, usually to do with social interactions.

Standard strategies for coping with hypersensitivity include avoiding situations with loud or confusing noise, such as parties and crowded areas, which can be overwhelming. Soundproofing or even moving home can deal with traffic noise to a large extent. Unfortunately there’s no practical way to eliminate the lower level background noise that’s part of modern life. On the other hand it can be mitigated, and the simplest way of doing that is to give the affected person a way to block it out. Organizations like the UK’s National Autism Society recommend using earplugs or headphones to block distracting sounds, and many people have found it to be effective. There are limitations though, and many people are now finding that noise-cancelling headphones are a more effective solution.

Noise-cancelling headphones were first developed in the 1950s for the aviation industry; engine noise and vibration, especially in the helicopters that were becoming more common, could make it extremely difficult for pilots to understand radio and intercom messages. Later they were adopted with music lovers who wanted to listen without distractions. They have now become much more popular and widespread, as well as more affordable. They work by detecting incoming sounds and emitting a signal with an opposite phase that basically cancels out the external noise. This means music can be played at a lower volume because there’s no need to drown out the background. Another advantage that users quickly discovered was that they make it easier to sleep in noisy environments, such as an airliner cabin; by cancelling out most or all of the distractions the wearer can sit in virtual silence despite the noise of the engines and other passengers. It’s this capability – removing ambient noise – that makes them effective for people with hypersensitivity.

By wearing noise-cancelling headphones a person with ASD can eliminate most of the background noise and reduce what remains to a manageable level. This makes it possible to concentrate on other tasks, relax, play games with others and many more activities that are normally difficult or impossible. A good pair of headphones is also comfortable enough to be worn in bed if necessary, and can help the wearer to get a good night’s sleep without being woken up by noise. Plugs or ear defenders have been used for similar purposes for many years but noise-cancelling ones are far more effective; as well as absorbing much of the noise they actively work to cancel what remains. They can also be connected to a media player and used to play music, therapeutic sounds or even audio books. Of course any conventional headphones that cover the ears can also be used for this but noise, especially low frequencies, can still penetrate.

When choosing noise-cancelling headphones the main factors to consider are comfort and noise reduction capability. If headphones are uncomfortable your child will be reluctant to wear them, and children who’re hypersensitive to sound are also often very sensitive to physical sensations and the texture of objects. A set that completely enclose the ears rather than sitting flat on them will usually be more comfortable as well as blocking noise more effectively. The material of the ear cups is also important. Some synthetic materials can trap moisture, causing an unpleasant clammy feeling. Inert protein cushioning is usually the most comfortable.

The headphones’ noise reduction ability is obviously very important. Most models reduce low frequency sounds very effectively, but are less effective at cancelling higher frequencies. Unfortunately many of the noises that cause the biggest problems for people with ASD are high pitched, and children’s’ ears are much more sensitive to high frequencies than adults’. That means you should look for headphones with full-spectrum noise reduction, such as the Solitude WX1. Headphones capable of reducing sounds by at least 25 decibels are required for the best results.

It’s not a good idea for your child to wear noise cancelling headphones all the time; as well as shutting them off from social interactions, which they should be encouraged to develop as much as possible, they could also become over-reliant on the headphones if they wear them too often. Instead they should be kept for when noise becomes an immediate problem. This will also give your child confidence, as they can experience the environment while knowing they have support available if the aural stimulation becomes too much for them. Depending on the age and self-confidence of your child they may be able to decide for themselves when they need to use them, or you can make the decision when it’s obvious they’re having trouble with noise.

It’s vital that headphones, like any other support mechanism, are available when they are needed. Always ensure that you have a supply of spare batteries to hand, as when the battery runs out the noise cancellation system will stop working. If possible keep a spare set of headphones as well. Not long ago most noise-cancelling headphones were aimed at the high-end audio market and were very expensive, usually around $300 for a good pair, but prices have fallen and high quality headphones like the Plane Quiet Platinum can now be bought for less than $50. It’s best if the spare set are identical to the normal ones as children with ASD can be very sensitive to differences, and when they’re already over-stimulated the experience of using headphones that feel different can be upsetting.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child you’ll know that finding coping strategies can be difficult and there’s no magic solution that works for everyone, but there’s growing evidence that where hypersensitivity to sound is a problem noise-cancelling headphones work very well for many people. If your child wakes up often in the night, has trouble concentrating or often becomes agitated by noise levels they’re definitely worth trying.