Autism: Sound Sensitivity, Earplugs and Headphones

Many on the autism spectrum have acute sensitivity to sound.  Examples of acute sensitivity to sound include the buzzing of fluorescent lights or sensitivity to people chewing. To help with sound sensitivity, there are ear plugs or headphones that can be worn. Effectiveness and price can vary considerably.

Earplugs

The cheapest solution is to wear ear plugs. However, ear plugs must be placed in the ear properly (twisted to make thinner—not just shoved into the ear) to be effective– while also not being placed too far into the ear. Ear plug placement too far into the ear canal can cause the ear canal to swell from inflammation and may result ultimately in an ear infection. Additionally, ears and ear plugs need to be cleaned regularly to prevent infection.

Headsets:  Noise Cancelling vs. Noise Reducing

Noise cancellation headphones are designed to eliminate outside background sound so that one can listen to music clearly through the headset. This type of headphone typically runs in the $150 to $400 price range. How well the headset eliminates background noise and the quality of the music sound are why the price range is so variable.  With this type of headset there is also a question of whether the headset passively vs. actively eliminates background noise. Active is better.

Bose is the brand that’s recommended as the best active sound eliminator. For less high-end headphones, Sony has sturdy headsets that have good noise cancellation with adequate to superior quality music sound (depending upon the price). My daughter on the autism spectrum uses a Sony noise cancelling headphone that cost $150; it also had the added benefit of being available in multiple colors.

Please note:  To wear these headsets and get the noise cancellation without playing music, the headphones still must be turned on and plugged into a device such as a MP3 player or phone. However, blocking sound without having white noise or music playing can lead to increased sound sensitivity.

Noise reduction headphones-whether they are called “autism noise reduction headphones” for children or are headphones meant for adults—seem to work the same. The concept is to lower background noise while still being able to hear people speak. The ones on autism websites are for sound sensitive kids to wear usually at school.

The non-autism headphones for adults are designed essentially for people in noisy occupations, firearm enthusiasts or concert goers in order to prevent hearing damage. Some of the noise reducing headphones eliminate everything over 85 dB (decibels)– which is supposed to be the threshold when hearing damage occurs. 85 dB may still be too loud for the autistic, however. The less fancy headphones just lower the dB a specified amount.

Please note the dB reduction marked on the headphone box is “Lab dB.” This may not be the same as the “real life” sound reduction–which is typically much less. There are websites that list the “lab” vs “real life” sound reduction of different brands of headphones. The best sound reduction appears to be 32 Lab dB. No brand lists the real-life sound reduction–only what the lab sound reduction was found to be.

Other Considerations on Headsets

The quality of the headband and how tight the headband fits on the head are important considerations. Some of the so-called trendy headsets tend to have headbands that break over a short period of time. Additionally, if the headband gives one a headache and/or makes one feel “like one’s head is in a vice,” then the headset won’t be worn for long.

Another consideration before purchasing a headset is the size of the ear pads. The ear pads on the headsets don’t have a standard size so some of the ear pads are smaller than others depending upon the brand and price. Therefore, it is best for the person who needs the headset to try it on first to make sure it adequately covers the ears before buying.

Conclusion:

There is no one size fits all solution for the autistic to help with sound sensitivity. Headphones specifically for the autistic tend to be multi-colored with characters or animals on them as the assumption is they are for kids. Adults on the autism spectrum have choices for assistance with sound sensitivity between noise cancelling or noise reduction headphones as well as earplugs.

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Autism: Sensory Deprivation Rooms Good, Seclusion Rooms Bad

There is a big difference between “sensory deprivation rooms” and “seclusion rooms” in schools. If you are the parent or guardian of a child on the autism spectrum, make sure you know the difference and your child’s school does not use any Seclusion Rooms.

What’s the Difference?

Sensory Deprivation Rooms do not have locked doors; they are not tiny rooms. An aide or teacher usually goes with the student to help him calm down. The student is not left alone. The room is a bit darker than the ordinary classroom so there is less light stimuli. The rooms are not used as punishment or as discipline.

I have first-hand experience within the last 5 years of observing the use of Seclusion/Isolation/ Time-Out Rooms in elementary schools in the United States. In the past, I was a substitute teacher and occasionally I assisted as an aide in autism classrooms. The Seclusion Room was a small, dark room, sometimes as small as an outhouse. The teacher forced the autistic child into it and either locked the door or held the door shut. There were no lights. The autistic child was put into this room when he was “acting out.” There was no “calming down” the child. The child begged to be let out and went into total meltdown. The teacher either ignored the meltdown or told the child he couldn’t come out until he calmed down. It was barbaric and horrifying.

References and Further Resources on Autism and Seclusion vs.Sensory Deprivation Rooms:

United States:

2016: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article53608685.html

2015: http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/abuse.index.htm

2013: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/law-targets-padded-rooms-autistic-kids/story?id=18892197

Canada:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/seclusion-rooms-1.3264834

New Zealand:  http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/86214068/Sensory-deprivation-rooms-can-be-a-lifesaver-say-parents-of-autistic-children

United Kingdom:  http://www.specialneedsjungle.com/seclusion-rooms-every-parent-professional-know/

Autism and Indoor Air Pollution

There is rising evidence that environmental exposures such as air pollution in genetically-susceptible individuals are a cause of autism. Some examples of air pollution are heavy metals, toluene, solvents, and flame retardants. Many people don’t realize that they can be exposed to these pollutants in their homes. Below are some examples of indoor air pollution:

  • Carpeting—Some carpets can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while carpet padding may be treated with flame-retardants.
  • Furniture—VOCs can be emitted from the glues and binders in plywood, particleboard and composite wood products.
  • Home Printers: Ink cartridges may emit VOCs and glymes. These solvent chemicals are part of the glycol ether family.
  • Scented candles—Non-beeswax candles can emit cancer-causing benzene and toluene.
  • Non-stick cookware can emit polytetrafluoroethylene. Use stainless steel, stoneware or domestic cast-iron cookware instead.
  • Paints, varnishes and wax as well as some cleaning products contain organic solvents. Store in an outdoor shed rather than in your home.

To help protect yourself from these sources of indoor air pollution and potential causes of autism, look for “Low VOCs” information on product labels, well ventilate your home while using solvents, air out new carpeting and building materials before installing them in your home and substitute synthetically scented candles and non-stick cookware with safe alternatives.

Sources:  Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (uphe.org)

American Lung Association (lung.org)

RodaleWellness.com

Reveal Health Tracker Can Predict Autism Meltdown

You have probably heard of wearable fitness trackers that a person wears to measure their fitness level, but have you heard of a wearable health tracker that measures an autistic person’s response to anxiety thus enabling a prediction of when an autism meltdown is likely to occur?  This anxiety tracker is called Reveal and it is made by Awake Labs of Vancouver, Canada.

Reveal is a wearable band with state-of-the-art sensors that measure and track signals the body makes in response to anxiety. There are three types of sensors:  a heart rate sensor, a skin conductivity sensor that measures sweat and a temperature sensor. This autism technology system includes software which uses snapshots of these physiological responses and then using an “advanced algorithm” helps to identify patterns of anxiety by graphing the heart rate, sweat and temperature changes over time. If a meltdown appears imminent, a smartphone app notifies a designated person such as a parent or teacher of these physiological changes that are likely leading to a meltdown. Information on how to order one of these autism technology health trackers is provided through the sources below.

Sources:  http://awakelabs.com/

Forget counting steps: Reveal fitness tracker records stressors for autistic kids

 

Autism: FDA Announces Proposal to Ban Electric Stimulation Devices

The FDA announced today a proposal to ban electrical stimulation devices (ESDs) which are known to be used on autistic people who are “self-injurious or aggressive.” The FDA stated the devices “present an unreasonable and substantial risk to public health that cannot be corrected or eliminated through changes in labeling.” Evidence of adverse effects caused by ESDs included “significant psychological and physical risks …including depression, anxiety, worsening of self-injury behaviors and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, pain, burns, tissue damage and errant shocks from a device malfunction.” Note this is a proposed ban. Once this proposal is published in the Federal Register, Monday, April 25, 2016, there is a 30 day comment period for the general public.

The FDA has known about this shock device for years. The FDA had previously warned the Judge Rotenberg Center in 2011 and 2012 that their ESD was out of compliance with FDA regulations as the device had been modified to allow increases in voltage. Originally, the ESD had been approved in 1994 at a set voltage. This Judge Rotenberg Center is the only known location in the United States that uses the device; the Center was previously known as the Behavioral Research Institute and has moved over the years from California to Rhode Island to its present location in Massachusetts.

Additionally, even the UN has advocated the ESD be banned. Back in 2013, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, called out the Judge Rotenberg Center for using this electrical stimulation device on those with autism and said the device amounted to torture. Mr. Mendez advocated at that time that action be taken at the federal level.

Sources: FDA.gov http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm497194.htm

Office of the Federal Register: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/04/25/2016-09433/banned-devices-electrical-stimulation-devices-used-to-treat-self-injurious-or-aggressive-behavior

Forbes.com http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2016/04/22/fda-seeks-to-ban-electric-shock-devices/#4856b7237ead   AND

http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/03/08/autism-shock-therapy-is-torture-says-un-official/#75fe3e4b4fc2

Project Lifesaver, Autism and Wandering

You may have read of recent news reports of autistic children who wandered off from home and were later found dead, often from drowning. To help with the wandering problem, Project Lifesaver was developed to help those with autism, Down Syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders who have wandered off to be brought home in a timely manner.

The company behind Project Lifesaver is Project Lifesaver International (PLI) which is a 501c3 non-profit organization. There are three components to their program:  Teaching search and rescue techniques;  applying “appropriate tracking technology;” and providing a basic understanding of autism, dementia and other cognitive disorders while certifying first responders in techniques to “assess and effectively manage the safe and comfortable return” of the individual with a brain disorder who wanders.

PLI has developed three possible options on how their program can be used.  Option 1 is the original Project Lifesaver International program where an agency makes the purchase and maintenance of all tracking equipment and transmitters. The agency making the purchase will maintain all of the information regarding the “at risk” individual and their family or caregiver (hereafter referred to as “client”) in the PLI database and are solely responsible for all of the financial transactions to PLI.

Option 2 is similar to option 1 in that an agency purchases the tracking equipment and gets training from Project Lifesaver International.  However, the client will purchase the transmitters and pay the monthly maintenance fee directly to PLI.  The agency maintains all of the client information instead of PLI and PLI only receives the information necessary in order to supply the necessary equipment to the client.

With Option 3, a client enrolls with Project Lifesaver directly, purchases the transmitters and does the monthly maintenance. The agency involvement is limited to PLI sharing with the agency the information needed on the “at risk” individual in the event of a search.

Source:  http://www.Projectlifesaver.org

Robot Helps Children with Autism Learn Social Skills

Milo, is a two foot-tall humanoid robot that uses facial expressions and children’s voices to demonstrate appropriate social behavior in order to help kids with autism learn social skills. The robot was developed by Robokind and the children’s voices were developed by Acapela Group to help autistic kids engage with the robot in order to teach them the meaning of emotions and facial expressions.

Milo uses the Robots4Autism’s research-based curriculum to teach elementary and middle school-aged kids about acting appropriately in social situations and demonstrating empathy while encouraging more self-motivation in the kids. “Recent research has shown that children working with a therapist and Milo are engaged 70-80% of the time compared to just 3-10% of the time without the robot.”

Robots4Autism’s curriculum for kids with autism is available in Android and iOS. Some of the benefits of the curriculum are noted to be “observable increases in eye contact, body language and friendliness, intrinsically motivates children to learn and documents and records sessions for later inclusion and review in IEPs.” You can find out more about Milo and the Robots4Autism curriculum at the robokindrobots’ website.

Sources: http://www.robokindrobots.com/robots4autism-home/

http://autism.einnews.com/article/301938397/dmzHv36mfCmo2GXc

Autism and SwiftKey Symbols Visual Keyboard App

SwiftKey this week launched a new Android App called SwiftKey Symbols, a visual symbol type of keyboard instead of the traditional QWERTY keyboard. The image keyboard is designed to help those with communication and learning difficulties such as non-verbal kids with autism communicate more effectively with family, friends and teachers. The app is currently in beta version on the SwiftKey Greenhouse page where users can test apps and provide feedback before the final version is launched.

This visual symbol app keyboard lets users construct sentences by picking out symbols according to categories or using the “prediction bar.” What makes the app really special for autistic kids and others with communication difficulties is the app “learns from each individual’s behavior to show relevant images;” therefore, each individual’s SwiftKey Symbols app will be unique. An additional function of the app is that it remembers what symbols have been used at what time of the day and day of the week in order to improve its prediction capability. Users can also add their own image symbols and categories.

SwiftKey was started by co-founders Jon Reynolds (CEO) and Dr. Ben Medlock (CTO) in 2008. The first SwiftKey keyboard app launched in London in 2010. The company has offices in London, San Francisco and Seoul as well as representatives in India and China.

Sources: http://gadgets.ndtv.com and https://swiftkey.com/en/greenhouse

Apps that Help Kids with Autism

A non-profit, Common Sense Graphite, has come up with what they think are the best apps for working with kids on the autism spectrum. Here is a categorized partial list based on highest rating:

Emotions:

  • Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings: Singing and role-playing conversations based on emotions. Covers not only words but facial expressions and body language.
  • Touch and Learn Emotions: Helps kids identify feelings such as excitement, sadness or anger. One drawback of the app is some of the images could identify more than one emotion which could be confusing.
  • Breathing Bubbles: Name “joys and anxieties” by creating sentences and putting them into bubbles, then “releasing worries” and “embracing joys.”
  • IF…The Emotional IQ game: An adventure game that “promotes wise decision-making and respect for others.”
  • Mood Meter—Building your Emotional Intelligence: Kids “explore a grid of emotions to describe their current mood.” It is expected for users to create much of their own text and images as built-in images and text are “limited.”

Language and Communication:

  • Proloquo2Go: Tool to help kids with speech difficulties communicate better. App needs to be customized to reflect kids’ current abilities and goals. Note: Cost is $220.
  • Language Builder Deluxe: Audio and visual tool to learn language. Kids must have interaction with an adult to evaluate their sentences as there is no feedback. Note: Cost is $10.
  • QuestionIt: Basic approach to teaching “question words and concepts” to kids experiencing language delays.

Social Skills:

  • The Social Express II: Interactive lessons “help students to cope with real life situations.” Free to download but subscription required.
  • Social Stories: Help for kids to write social stories such as “School Day,” “Home Day,” and “On the Bus.” Note: Cost is $7.
  • Conversation Builder: “Themed scripts” help kids to practice “successful social exchanges” including turn-taking, initiation and staying on topic. Note: Cost is $20

Summary: There are numerous apps that can help kids on the autism spectrum with emotions, communication, social skills and schedules (not included in this article). Cost is free to a few dollars unless otherwise noted. All the apps are available on Apple products (at least iPad) but only a few are available on Android. Most of the apps cover at least 4 grade levels—usually more.

Sources: Graphite.org and autism.einnews.com

Autism and Mealtime

So I have been reading a lot of blog posts about neurotypical parents and their struggles with their autistic child or children at mealtime. If your family has an enjoyable mealtime where everyone is ready to join hands and sing Kumbaya, then this article is not for you. On the other hand, if mealtime at your house is more like hell on earth, and you go to bed at night craving Valium, then read on.

Psychologists and all sorts of pro-family professionals like to extol the virtues of family mealtime. It’s the part of the day when everyone in the family gets together to compare notes and agendas about the day, and check-in as it were. Additionally, as if contending with society’s norms wasn’t enough, you probably have relatives and friends who are quick to remind you of the importance of “3 squares a day,” “eating everything on your plate because there are starving Africans,” “mealtime is synonymous with family time” etc. etc. ad nauseam.

But, how about we look at mealtime from the perspective of an autistic person. I have been on the autism spectrum for over fifty years and I raised a daughter on the autism spectrum so I would like to share some observations. I don’t purport to know what it is like for every autistic person, but I can give some perspective to the neurotypical out there. As the vast majority of autistic children have some type of sensory issue, let’s look at what mealtime may be like from the viewpoint of one with sensory issues.

  • Light:  Is it bright in your kitchen or dining room at mealtime? Most people don’t eat in the dark unless the power is out, so chances are there is a fair amount of light emanating from light bulbs at dinner as well as sunlight during the day.  Does your child act up when in the presence of fluorescent light, bright sunlight or just a well-lit room?
  • Noise: Is it quiet like a library at your breakfast or dinner table? Or is there a lot of talking, bustling about, moving of chairs etc.?
  • People: Does your child get antsy/agitated when around more than 1 person at a time? Does your child prefer a lot of alone time? How does/he she react with a group of people around a table?
  • Textures/Taste: Does your child only like certain textures of food?  Certain colors of food?  If there is more than one item on the plate, does he get agitated if the food touches or starts running together? Does unfamiliar food send your child into a meltdown?
  • Smell: Does your child have a heightened sense of smell? Do certain smells agitate him? How about a variety of smells all at once?

Is it any wonder your child does not do well at mealtime or refuses to eat?

When I raised my daughter, she and I were the only ones in the home and as I mentioned, we both are on the autism spectrum. The family meal concept (breakfast, lunch, dinner) went out the window early. You probably noticed your autistic child only likes a few foods (little sarcasm there). We on the autism spectrum will eat the same foods most of the time, if you let us, until we either get tired of the food (which can take a VERY long time) or we have something else put in front of us that looks more interesting. I have eaten peanut butter sandwiches for lunch (or sometimes for dinner) pretty much every day for the last fifty years. Really. My daughter and I when she was growing up, rarely liked the same foods at the same time or wanted to eat at the same time of the day. I could have forced us to have mealtime, but it seemed counterproductive. Yes, we did eat a meal together on occasion outside of the home at a restaurant or at a relative or friend’s house. I do advocate having a “group meal” once in a while to teach your child about the neurotypical world, but forcing your autistic child into 2 or 3 family meals around a table per day is going to put you into an early grave. By the way, my daughter and I are healthy adults (from a nutritional standpoint—anxiety issues are another story).

Do yourself and your nervous system, not to mention the poor overloaded nervous system of your child on the autism spectrum, a favor, and try to give your child small amounts of no more than 1 or 2 foods at a time. Combine that with an eating environment that is one to one and surrounded by low light, low sound and low disruption. Inotherwords, have eating take place in an environment as soothing as possible. Experiment and see what different foods your child may like. Above all, don’t give up. Just because your child does not like the food now, doesn’t mean he won’t want to try it 3 months from now or a year from now.

Do NOT battle with your child over eating. Battling over food turns eating into an anxiety-producing activity which can lead to life-long eating problems and even eating disorders. Introduce new foods slowly and don’t expect miracles overnight. Eventually, try giving foods from different food groups at intervals during the entire waking day to maintain nutrition. Resist the temptation to believe “my child only likes …” and repeatedly just give him that food. You are not doing him any favors.