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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