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This Ask Me Monday (AMM2) question covers the topic of how to help a child who has a noise sensitivity and seems overwhelmed by crowds.
I was hoping to maybe get a little advice for my little. She is very sensitive to loud noises and large crowds and I don’t know how to comfort her or help her through situations. I am trying to figure things out on my own but I know I could benefit from some support groups and ideas from other people.
Sensory Processing Disorder
The noise sensitivities you describe in your child align with symptoms of what is known as a sensory processing disorder, or SPD. Amythest Shaber eloquently describes Sensory Processing Disorder in the video below.
In the video, Amythest recommends stimming as a way to self-regulate sensory sensitivities. CLICK HERE to watch Amythest’s video that explains stimming.
Diagnosis & Treatment of a Noise Sensitivity
SPD is not currently recognized as a distinct medical condition. As such, it can be difficult to get an actual diagnosis. If you bring up your concerns with a pediatrician, they may be able to give you a referral to an occupational therapist (OT) and/or a neuropsychologist. A neuropsychologist will conduct a comprehensive evaluation that 1) may be able to provide insight into SPD and 2) will be able to diagnose any co-occuring condition(s). An occupational therapist (OT) cannot officially diagnose SPD, but they can evaluate sensory needs and provide a treatment program.
You can also self-refer to an OT, but may have to pay directly for an evaluation and services. You will want to find an OT that has experience with sensory processing disorders.
Tips for a Noise Sensitivity
There are several accommodations you can try with your daughter to help her be more comfortable in noisy situations. I am not an OT, but have seen some of the strategies applied successfully with students from my past teaching career with a similar noise sensitivity. I have also tried them with my own children who have sensory sensitivities. I asked for input from other parents who have children with a similar noise sensitivity to gain further insight into what works with many children. Lastly, I feel this discussion would not be complete without getting input from adults who have SPD. To fill in this missing piece, I also asked autistic adults for their input as they are the largest population with a co-occuring sensory processing disorder that I am aware of.
Accommodations for noise:
Noise Canceling Headphones
Most of the people who responded suggested noise cancelling headphones to help a child with a noise sensitivity. As with many products and toddlers, use with caution and supervision. One responder pointed out that headphones could pose a strangulation hazard.
I own two pairs of this Snug Safe brand of noise canceling earmuffs. My children find them uncomfortable and will not wear them.
One responder recommended a set of Peltor brand earmuffs. Based on Amazon reviews, they seem like they would work well for a toddler.
I just ordered this set in my search for noise canceling headphones. The manufacturer suggests stretching out the headphones over the box to improve comfort. Color matters at my house, so I had to find a brand that had purple. We stretched them out as suggested and they worked well for my daughter. She found them comfortable and so I can personally recommend this set.
The runner up recommendation for blocking out noise was ear plugs. Some children will tolerate ear plugs well and others will not. As pointed out by one person who responded, use with caution and close supervision as they are small and a potential choking hazard for a young child.
Block out irritating noise and replace with more desirable input
A few parents found it very helpful to buy the child an iPad to use with headphones. The child was able to be entertained by something they enjoy while blocking out uncomfortable sounds. I own the IXCC shockproof iPad mini case and it has worked perfectly. We have had drops and throws and the iPad was not damaged.
The person who recommended the iPad also recommended Saker Kid Friendly Headphones or other $15 headphones from Walmart. If you are concerned about a possible strangulation hazard from the cords, I would suggest going with a wireless version for safety. Use with supervision.
Although I cannot personally vouch for this ONTA brand, it seems to have gotten decent reviews on Amazon.
Tips For a Visual Sensitivity
Since your child shows a sensitivity to crowds, she may also have difficulty with visual input. Crowds can be both loud and visually overwhelming for individuals with SPD. Sunglasses and/or a hat can help block out bright light and other uncomfortable visual input.
General Sensory Tips
Some responders suggested trying a weighted vest or compression vest for calming. I have seen and used these tools in the classroom under the supervision of an OT. I would personally recommend asking an OT specifics before trying them out. An OT will be able to guide you on the appropriateness of their use with your child, when to use them, how often, and for how long. Also, the recommended weight for the vest will vary with each specific child.
A sensory kit
A sensory kit was also suggested by several people. A sensory kit is a bag that you fill with calming items. It can be taken on outings to have all of your sensory tools easily available. You can fill the kit with noise cancelling headphones, a favorite blanket, a few favorite toys, special drinks and snacks, etc.
Other Useful Information
- Although not all of the people surveyed noted improvement with age, many people noticed that their children or themselves were able to tolerate more noise as they grew up.
- Some adults with SPD explained that their noise sensitivities caused them great discomfort and even physical pain.
- One adult with SPD also pointed out that during a sensory overload, he lost his ability to communicate verbally. I would also guess that understanding verbal input was impacted.
From the information above, it is clear that SPD can greatly impact an individual’s life. Providing tools to reduce auditory input from a noise sensitivity (e.g., noise canceling headphones), patience and understanding, and other accommodations can improve the child’s comfort in the environment.
Ways to go out
A Gradual Desensitization Process
Although there are probably many, I have read one research study that worked with children to decrease their sensitivity to sounds (Keogel, Openden, & Koegel, 2004). The process is very gradual and done in a way that is not stressful or upsetting for the child.
If you are interested in starting this process, I would recommend picking one activity type to work on, such as going out to eat. Restaurants can be very loud and visually stimulating environments. A fast food restaurant for dessert (or other favorite food) during a low traffic time may be a good place to start.
Talk about where you will be going. Talk about the sensory experiences that may happen there (i.e., it might get loud) and what she can do if the sensory experience is uncomfortable (i.e. use headphones). It may even be helpful to show her a video recording of what you will be doing. You can easily record your own or find one on YouTube.
Pretend play the activity at home using pretend or real food. Include situations where you pretend it is getting too loud and then pull out the Sensory Kit and put on the noise canceling headphones. It may be helpful to use an activity schedule to teach the steps that will occur in the setting (e.g., wait in line, order food, wait, sit down, eat, throw out garbage, go home).
Go to the restaurant
Go out in the real setting. Use the activity schedule and sensory tools as needed.
- The activity should be stopped if she begins crying or is upset. The point is to make the event a positive experience for her.
- Continue to periodically practice and gradually up the level (i.e. go to the same fast food restaurant when it is slightly more busy or gradually increase how long you stay) as she can comfortably tolerate the previous level.
This same process can be applied to other situations where it would be helpful to prepare a child for an unfamiliar event or setting. I have used a similar process to prepare one of my children for a blood draw. CLICK HERE to see the sample video and activity schedule I used.
Other Suggestions for Being Out in Public
- Provide sensory breaks (quiet areas) as needed.
- You may need to shorten outings or plan them around her sensory needs.
- Give her a “safe space” when out in public, such as in a stroller.
- Prepare her for the unfamiliar by talking about the situation, watching videos, and using visual supports, such as an activity schedule.
- One parent suggested teaching the child with a noise sensitivity to cover her ears. This may be appropriate for unexpected noise discomfort. An adult with SPD noted that headphones are better at blocking sound than hands and should be made available as soon as possible.
Sensitivities to noise and other sensory input is a real condition that can cause great discomfort and pain for an individual. This condition is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). It can be difficult to get a diagnosis as SPD is not currently recognized in the medical community as an distinct disorder. Tools to help a child through a noise sensitivity include 1) blocking out the noise through headphones or 2) replacing the uncomfortable sensory input with desirable sounds through use of an iPad with headphones. A child may also benefit from a sensory kit containing items that will help them when in difficult sensory settings.
There are a couple of Facebook groups that you may find helpful for support.
I have a Facebook Community that you are welcome to join. We currently have at least 4 members (including me) who I know have children with sensory sensitivities.
In my search for resources, I found a Facebook Group that is specifically for parents of children who have SPD or suspected SPD. CLICK HERE for the link to this Facebook group.
Ask Me Monday
This blog post is part of my Ask Me Monday series. CLICK HERE to learn more about Ask Me Monday.
To submit a question for Ask Me Monday, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Ask Me Monday” in the subject line.
Koegel, R. L., Openden, D., & Koegel, L. K. (2004). A systematic desensitization paradigm to treat hypersensitivity to auditory stimuli in children with autism in family contexts. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 29, 122-134.