Answers from the Spectrum : Noise

nuage mots mains merci

Question for the Spectrum: This week our question to the spectrum is from a mother who has been following Iris, her daughter is 7 years old and has sensory integration disorder and ASD.

‘One of our biggest challenges is loud noises. Dogs barking, kids yelling, fire alarms, cars honking, even people coughing or sneezing will set her off. I am wondering what if feels like to other people on the spectrum who also have sensory issues to hear these noises as my daughter has trouble explaining it to me. She says it feels like her brain is shaking and I can see it physically hurts her and it causes a lot of anxiety and stress if she feels a place we are going is going to be loud. Funny thing though as she can be extremely loud (screaming in excitement) and it doesn’t bother her at all. Why is that? I am so confused about that one. I would think her voice would also be a trigger but it is not at all. It is totally ok for her to be loud but not anyone else.

Also wondering what has helped people on the spectrum overcome the loud noises or is it even possible? Does it ever get a bit better? I just want to help my daughter by understanding it better and trying to find new ways to help her. Thank you!’

Answers from the Spectrum:

‘Your own noises come from yourself , it’s processing seemingly outside noises that’s hard. Also it’s because we can feel our own noises, understand what the feeling is that makes a scream or a sound where as we cant always understand why another would make a noise. Why are so many people talking and banging tea cups down. Etc.’


‘like there’s a million ants crawling under your skin. You zone in on that noise and hear it above all others.
Washing machines spinning and hoovers in the flats surrounding me… can’t handle it. often have to go out. it makes me feel like, all is doomed. like, i Should be frightened. Does get easier as you get older, but only for me as I have the understanding to put the noises in context and reason with myself that they are safe and ok.
a battle im bound to have this afternoon when my neighbour above does her washing. I dread it.’


‘I think the thing I’ve noticed with loud noises is that when I can anticipate them there not always so bad, it’s often when there straight out of the blue that irritate me the most like if I’m relaxed and reading and then someone stomps or drops something on the floor above my head, loud noises that I make will always be easier on me then loud noises made by others, because I can always anticipate them I always know exactly when there going happen. For anyone who hates loud noises like I do that’s a big advantage.

Getting use to working in a loud environment can help with tolerating louder noises to, or at least I’ve definitely noticed, I’ve worked at a cafe for almost 2 months now and I hardly even notice loud noises there anymore.’


‘Imagine you are next to a jet plane as it’s taking off. That sound would be physically painful, right? Now imagine your vacuum cleaner is that loud. What would you do?

Making my own noise (screaming as a child, humming under my breath) helps fill my head with a sound I control. If you get the right frequency it even helps cancel out the bad sound, like noise canceling headphones.

And as a child, why would my screaming bother the adults around me? They are obviously unaffected by much worse noises (the ones that bother me so much).

Noise is my biggest sensory problem. My hearing goes from ultra-sensitive to dull without warning, but most of the time it’s the first. As an adult I deal with it by knowing every sound around me. I _must_ locate and identify any new sound. (This annoys me sometimes as I didn’t really _want_ to stop what I was doing, but I just have to find the sound,)

I try to avoid loud or high-pitched sounds. I don’t use an electric blender; I wear noise-canceling headphones to vacuum; I don’t go to concerts, bars, loud restaurants, or places children frequent–since they are known for unexpectedly emitting high-pitched shrieks for no reason.

How does loud/unpleasant noise make me feel? It’s physically painful, makes my head throb, makes me want to curl into a defensive fetal position and cry, which as an adult you just can’t do in public unless you want a whole lot of unwelcome attention. It’s overwhelming and dominates my ability to focus and my ability to cope.

And knowing that about me, you would be amazed at how loud my workplace is. But I know every sound there. I know why it’s happening, how long each one lasts, and what each one means. So those sounds belong and are okay. Except the fire alarm. That one is so loud and painful it’s all I can do to leave the area instead of curling up and whimpering… not exactly what the designers of that sound had in mind!’


‘Screaming babies is the absolute worst sound in the world to me it’s like someone is scratching nails on a chalkboard in my head relentlessly, it’s an intensely painful high frequency sound wave thats slashing through my ear drums and going straight through my head, it feels like my brain is literally short circuiting. The best thing I can do when I feel like that is just keep my ears plugged go downstairs and read till my fried nerves chill out.

Some noises actually help me, especially with going to sleep. Every summer when we have to keep the dehumidifier running downstairs I keep it right outside my room at all times , not so I can have the air in my room cleaned first, the constant humming noise is just loud enough to block out nearly all the other noises in the house, it feels like a protective sound barrier. Whenever it turns off for a few minutes I feel almost anxious though, every noise feels so much louder, it’s very helpful for falling asleep cause it blocks out all the other noises that would usually keep me awake longer.’


‘I describe it as having a cheese grater being rubbed vigorously back and forth across my brain. I can actually feel the noise vibrate through my whole body and it gives me terrible anxiety. It’s horrific.

I’ve often been told that I raise my voice a lot if I’m excited about something, though I don’t even realise. I think us being loud ourselves probably doesn’t bother us because we are in control of it and it’s not unexpected like other noise is.

I put my headphones in and listen to music to try and block it out. If the noise isn’t too loud but still bothersome, I’ll have my earphones in but with no music, just to dull the outside noise. I’ve heard from other autistic people that Alpine earplugs are good but I’ve yet to try them.

I’ve found that my sensory problems are getting worse as I’m getting older. Hypersensitivity is one of my biggest problems, I have really low tolerance for most things.’


‘For me, it isn’t so much the volume as it is that I have absolutely no ability to tune out the things that, for other people, are considered background noise.

It can be an issue with all kinds of noise, but it’s particularly problematic with voices – if someone has the TV on in the next room, it’s difficult for me to concentrate on anything but the noise from the TV. The only way it’s not a problem is in a place like a restaurant, where the number of voices is sufficient to make all of them indistinct.

Think of it like a photograph. For most people, only the object in the foreground is in focus. For me, it’s like there’s no difference between the subject and the background – it’s all in focus, so instead of a well-composed, artistic shot, it looks like a mess. I know I’m supposed to be looking at the person in the foreground, but my attention gets focused on the stuff in the background instead.

As far as the distinction between other people making noise and me making noise, I agree with previous commenters – I control my voice, so it doesn’t surprise me or steal focus from everything else that’s going on.

As far as the volume of my voice goes – well, most people subconsciously adjust the volume of their voice to the amount of background noise so that they can be heard. I’m going to take a guess that I’m doing the same thing, but because I’m so much more sensitive to the background noise, I feel like I need to talk more loudly to drown it out for my listeners.’


‘Music works wonders when mine is distressed because of sensory overload. We have an MP3 player with all her favourite songs and when she goes into meltdown it makes a massive difference. Noise blocking headphones are really worthwhile. My older son (15) now copes better but he was the same when he was little too.’


‘To me, it depends on the meaning of the noise rather than how loud it is. fire alarms and children screaming are both a distorted noise that means something is wrong, it is the same noise as a mechanical device breaking down or someone being in pain. if I can’t see the thing that is wrong, I assume that the world in general isn’t working or that my ears aren’t working. there are also noises I associate with unfriendly people because of past experiences, e.g. certain types of music, certain types of laughter. It especially freaks me out when peoples’ noises don’t match the situation e.g. when I am feeling sad and people are playing happy music. I’m also scared of silence for the same reason. In the genre/era of video games I’m used to, silence usually means either something awful is about to happen or the sound isn’t working.
I always have an MP3 player to hand so I can control the background music. I use a Samsung Tic-Toc because I can operate it without looking at it, it has very simple controls. I can’t just leave it running, it has to the be the right music track, and I might have to change it at a moments’ notice. I try and avoid situations that I know often have the bad sounds, such as crowded public transport. I have my phone on silent because phones freak me out for a variety of reasons, mostly bad past experiences with them. I’ve never found anything that works to stop the bad associations. learning new mental associations doesn’t really work. It’s another of the things I can’t do because people try and force me to do it, and a lot of the time I can’t control my mood or whether I can think positively about things anyway.

I should also mention that it works the other way round, certain music and sounds are euphoric to me. Sometimes I just have the music from games playing and meditate to it. I really love the sound of cats purring, but they are vibrations, not sounds, which according to my senses are a completely different sense.’


‘Two parts of this: first: If I go to a shop with sounds from kids screaming and advertising and stuff, I like to wear headphones and play music loud enough to make me able to fucus on one thing only. This is great for trains and public transport too. Usually makes people avoid starting random conversations too as a bonus! I can hear the fridge humming, the wind blowing and if you add dogs barking and shoes hitting asphalt and cars and whatnot to the mix it overstimulate my brain, even worse add flashing lights or lots of colours and movements… so I dont expect to ever get something like a drivers license. I cant even use a bike and focus on the rules and everyone around me at the same time. The other half part of this issue is that I feel sound like a physically item in my life, so a sound from me is ok, but a sound from the man living below me feels like part of him is on my area, and that is violation of my home. Feeling others sounds is like having them touch you on the skin and making it vibrate in your ears. I do prefer to only feel myself on my skin. So her liking her own voice is natural 🙂 ‘


‘The sound of people eating (chewing/slurping/crunching) makes me very agitated to the point of tears. I have very good hearing and can hear things louder than people around me. I dislike the sound of heavy breathing unless it’s my dog. I used to have to have a fan on 365 days of the year for many years as it was the only way I could fall asleep but since having a panic attack when I woke up in the middle of the night and the fan was really loud I have had to stop that routine. I’m extremely jumpy and get panicky when I hear sudden loud noises.’


‘For me it’s the little noises that upset me. When I was a kid, I used to live in a town with an air force base. Cold war time, so there were days when the fighter jets were screaming all day long. You couldn’t hear yourself thinking. Didn’t bother me at all. Nor did fireworks, motorbikes, cars, … Little noises though: if my younger brother wanted to get me mad, he just had to chew or slurp with a little noise. Still can’t stand that. Certain keyboards have an annoying sound. All kinds of ring tones (text messages, whatsapp messages) all day long. People doing things with their hands or feet. A typical office environment is very distracting and annoying. And it doesn’t seem to improve.’


‘The problem with incoming sound is that we have no filters, so it all comes in all at once, and we can’t process it, and the overload causes a cascade of other responses, like pain and fight/flight.

The only thing I have found to be consistently effective is in-ear ear plugs and music. The in-ear plug blocks all or most external noises, and the music helps to mask what does get through.

I find this to be a big help.

As far as her shouting, bear in mind that our own speech is relayed to our ears through our jaw bone, and not through the air – which is why our voice sounds so different when we hear it played back to us…’


‘It’s like sudden overload for me. Too many noises at once or too loud and I lose the ability to respond appropriately to the stimulus. Confusion, disorientation, frustration, it’s the information traveling into me can’t be processed in the correct order and I can’t make sense of it to respond. Say I’m at a restaurant and you’re the waiter and its a busy Friday night and we’re somewhere there are TVs and a crowd. I might hear two words from one person three beats from someone else’s headset, the whir of a motor and a tapping noise, the sound of silverware, sizzling, liquid sloshing, two or three different tv shows, and people breathing, and three words of a different conversation, cell phones going off, buzzers vibrating, all while you’re trying to tell me the special and take my order and I have no idea what you’ve asked me because I can’t sort you out of the rest of it. It can be physically painful. I also experience epidermal overload where my cloths feel like they are slicing through my body and to have both of these things happening at once makes me shut down. I actually will scratch myself till I bleed because I can’t stand how the clothing feels and when I get too upset I get the heaves and just start crying hysterically, the endorphin rush temporarily alleviates the pain of overload.

This is why I avoid concerts, bars, city’s and movies on opening weekends. Head phones help. I can be loud, and there are times I enjoy loud things but I have to be ready to removes my self or have an “out.” In a crowd headphones can be an out as can ear plugs.’


‘I think if the noise is unexpected or sudden I react or if I am having a “bad day” where there has been a lot of things to cope with. My family says I can be loud sometimes and not realise it. But it’s because I often can’t tell before the sound comes out. I occasionally speak too quietly too. Clubbing is hard for me because of the people, however I tend to get lost in the music if it’s continual. However, my friend popped a balloon in a club once and I had to leave because of that. It was just too much. When I go for a walk or to the supermarket I put on headphones so I have a continual noise that I can concentrate on to drown out the rest. Music has really helped me cope with a lot of noises and places I don’t like.’


‘yesterday a good metaphor came to me about noise.

This is only applicable to non-controlled noise (the noises that you did not choose to do or that are not consequences of actions you deliberately made).

It feels as if I were a fish and somebody was banging against the tank.
It makes you want to put your head back into your shoulder while closing your eyes.
Physically cringing.

This is a really tricky one because for example if at work somebody let the microwave ring for ages (one minute) after food is ready I start to get crazy and try to not be an ass about it but its hard. People always say “run for your food, Josephine is going to blow a fuse if you dont” even tho I try really hard to be super tolerant, they feel my frustration.’

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One thought on “Answers from the Spectrum : Noise

  1. Greetings,

    I stumbled upon this website and found little Iris’ story and paintings absolutely fascinating. I am also quite interested in the discussion on noise, as we just published a research paper showing that highly creative people have, what we call, “leaky” sensory filters, i.e., they don’t filter out as much information as people who are less creative. Which, of course, can serve as blessing and a curse. The research was recently summarized in Huffington Post, perhaps some of you may find it interesting: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/10/creative-genius-brain_n_6831248.html
    The idea for research comes from personal experience, so I can relate to so many of you here, and am glad to have found this website.

    Kind regards, – Darya
    https://sites.google.com/site/daryazabelina/

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