Neurodiversity Awareness/Appreciation

Neurodiversity Awareness/Appreciation

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Special Needs And Sensitive Ears

If you have sensitive ears, loud or shrill noises can cause
physical pain. 
When I was a little kid, I had very sensitive ears. That may have been one of the signs that there was something different about me. I remember being terrified of noises, such as drums at a parade, sirens on police cars and fire trucks, fireworks, dogs barking, low-flying airplanes, backfiring cars, loud music, etc. Even the vacuum cleaner was sometimes too much for me... especially vacuum cleaners at other people's houses. I guess I got used to my mom's vacuum because she vacuumed so much, but I was afraid of the one at my grandmother's house or the one at the cottage where we sometimes stayed in the summer. Oh my gosh... the fire alarm at school? Talk about painful! 

I remember covering my ears and crying... sometimes not even because I had heard a loud noise, but because I was afraid that I might hear one. For instance, I didn't really like playing with balloons or even having them in the house, because they might pop. 

This went on until I was well into grade school. My ears got a little less sensitive over time, so I could handle vacuum cleaners, airplanes, fireworks, etc. But particularly loud or shrill noises still cause me pain! I have never been to a rock concert, even though I love music, because I would not be able to handle the noise. I used to have a friend who loved to go see live bands playing in bars, and she insisted on us standing right in front of the stage. I couldn't enjoy the music because it was too painful, and I definitely couldn't converse with anyone over the loudness! 

And you know how sometimes at loud places people put their mouths right up to your ear and yell to you? If you do that to me, I may punch you in the face. I won't mean too... but it hurts so badly, I just need to get you away from my ear! 

When I hear very loud or shrill noises, it is almost a physical sensation, like wind blowing right into my eardrums. It also hurts inside my head. It is kind of hard to explain. All I can tell you is, it is a very unpleasant feeling that makes me want to get as far away from the noise as possible! Also, in instances where I did have to stay around a loud noise for a long time (such as when I went to the bar with my friend and listened to live music right by the stage) for hours or even a day afterwards I would feel dizzy and kind of sick. 

The reason I was thinking about this today is because I used to think this problem was something kids with autism spectrum disorders dealt with, but I have learned that kids with other special needs often have sensitive ears as well. I've been substituting in a special education class for a few weeks now. The kids there, fourth and fifth graders, have either autism, learning disorders, or intellectual disabilities. Many of them also have very sensitive ears.

Today there was a special event in the gym, for all of the fourth and fifth graders in the school, including the kids in my class. It was basically a relay race where kids rode on those square-shaped scooter boards around a circle. It was boys against girls. 

The other assistant in the classroom was absent and had no substitute, so I was in charge of taking four of the kids from my class down to the gym. (The fourth graders were participating at a different time.) One of the kids was a girl I'll call Myra, She has a mild intellectual disability, and is also mostly nonverbal due to a physical difference in her mouth. The other three kids with me were boys, one of whom had autism. 

Since three of the kids I was with were boys, I was standing on the boys' side of the gym. The three boys were cheering, having fun, and participating. All of the kids were screaming and jumping up and down. The noise was deafening, and a few times I put my hands over my ears to get some relief! But none of the three boys, including the one with autism, seemed bothered by it at all. 

I looked over at the girl's side of the gym to check on whether it would be Myra's turn soon. But Myra was not standing in line with the other girls. She was huddled on the floor in a corner, with her hands over her ears! 

I rushed back to the classroom to grab a few pairs of the sound muffling headphones we keep around... some of the kids use them to help them concentrate while they do classwork. They look just like the bulky headphones you can use to listen to music or play on the computer... except, at further inspection, you'd notice that they don't have a cord to plug them into anything. I ran back to the gym to offer a pair to Myra, who happily put them on. They did help with the noise... but Myra still didn't want to participate in the games. It was just too overwhelming. 

I offered the other pairs to the three boys, but none of them wanted any. So I tried on a pair myself. What a relief they brought to my very strained, ringing ears! I wish they had had those when I was a kid! 

The fourth graders did the same event right after us. One boy named Artie came back to class afterwards, with his hands on his head, actually crying, because the noise had been so bad. Artie has a learning disability but is more socially aware than some of the other kids. The noise had been torturing him, but he hadn't wanted to leave or wear headphones, because he so badly wanted to be like all of the other kids. He forced himself to stay for the entire event, but as soon as he returned to the classroom he was crying silently, holding his hands over his ears and head. 

So many activities in our society involve being as noisy as possible. We listen to music at top volume. We scream when we're excited. At sporting events, we hoot and holler. (And by we, I mean you, because I don't do any of those things! LOL!) Children and adults with sensitive ears sometimes have to miss out on things that they probably would have enjoyed, because of the noise. Myra missed out on participating in the relay race with her peers. Artie participated, but it caused him a lot of pain and distress. 

I wish it was socially acceptable to walk around wearing those sound muffling headphones! I can even think of a time a few years ago when my dad and I used to go bowling every Saturday night. It was at a time where they turned the music up loud and turned the lights down. People around us would be screaming and shouting. It wasn't quite painful for me at that point, but it bothered my ears a lot. I wished I could wear headphones, and I even suggested it, but my dad said I would look weird and he'd be embarrassed. I tried foam ear plugs, and they did help a little bit. 

Do you have sensitive ears? How do you cope with it? 

By the way, if you haven't already, please take my survey! It is anonymous and easy. I am going to publish the results on my blogaversary in April! 


  1. Oh man, poor baby! I can only imagine what the poor girl must have felt like! I have highly sensitive ears. The only loud noise I can really tolerate is the sound of jet engines, and like your mom's vacuum cleaner, I'm probably used to it because we leaved near an Air Force base for years when I was little.

    My poor husband wasn't aware of my sensitive ears when we first started dating. He snuck up behind me once and yelled in my ear, hoping to scare me. He didn't expect that it would set me off the way it did. (I think it might have been the first time I was really, really mad at him.) Afterward, he apologized when I told him how much it hurts.

    It's so wonderful you were able to get her the headphones. I'm still a bit surprised SPD isn't its own disorder yet, as so many children suffer from it.

  2. I'm sooo glad you were my swap partner b/c i think we have a lot in common. :) Although I'm not on the autism spectrum, I have other mental health issues and certain sounds have always been a problem for me. Music doesn't bother me or singing or playing my clarinet in a band, but as a child, I could not play with any toy that made sound. I had the Operation Game but we always had to play it without the batteries b/c the sound terrified me. A lot of 80s games had sound and I couldn't have the batteries in. I also had this pull along dog as a small child that made this weird noise when you pulled it and I screamed at that too. I wonder if sounds are bothersome to people with mental health issues too?

  3. This is so strange my son is has this.. He's been evaluated by a Psychiatrist but he's normal according to her observations. I feel as though I should get his ears checked but he claims nothing hurts it just "bothers" him. I do agree they always encourage loud noises and music and banging - thankfully, his teacher is pretty introverted herself so she allows those who are introverted, which my son can be, to have some quiet and alone time. They always want kids to be "social" - sometimes, they need a break from all that stimulation. I do and I'm an adult! It's been effective he's been doing great. :) Happy Friday Angel! -Iva

  4. My son is VERY noise sensitive, but it's weird because it's very selective. He had a field trip recently that I went on with him, to a kid's band place. He spent the whole time hiding under my coat, covering his ears. He often says "too loud!" when the vacuum is on and unplugs it. He did a fun run at school where they had a band, and spent the whole time covering his ears.

    I've become very aware of this but am also sometimes confused because if we get a package in the mail that has those bubble wrap things? He loves to stomp on them on our hard wood floors when I think too loud and he just thinks it's funny. I guess the difference is that the stomping is noise he can control? Anyway thank you as always for sharing. I really value that you are so willing to educate us all on this stuff.

  5. I also have sensitive ears, especially when I was a kid (lots of ear issues) today I can tolerate loud noises...if I'm expecting them but loud sudden noises really get my on edge. I can't stand the sound of gun shots (common around here as there is a lot of hunting and target shooting), thunder, ballons popping. My hubby's even more sensitive to loud sudden noises, but that's a touch of PTSD from when he was serving in Iraq,


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