Sound Inventory

A special education teacher and I were discussing the negative reaction of several of her students with autism to the fire alarm signal at school. As the discussion progressed, we both realized that the entire school day is filled with sounds that are probably very disconcerting to individuals diagnosed with autism. She asked me to spend a few hours in her classroom to take a “Sound Inventory” so she could make plans to make the auditory environment more pleasing and less irritating to her students, especially those with autism.

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SOME STRATEGIES. Most of the noises I noticed in the classroom were a necessary part of the regular routine. Computers zipped and pinged, timers dinged, teachers instructed and encouraged, students responded or rebelled, class bells rang occasionally, ceiling fans whirred, doors opened and closed, and people walked, skipped, clopped, or pattered across the tile floor. It was actually nice to hear the hum of individual instruction and to see an atmosphere where students with significant communication deficits were encouraged to interact and speak freely. At the same time, some of the distracting sounds in the room could be avoided. Let me mention two sources of distraction. First, without realizing it, the teacher had set up the “circle-time” chairs right beside the central air unit that turned on a noisy fan at unexpected intervals all day long. Students were much more focused and attentive when she moved the group gathering to another spot in the room. Secondly, a constant stream of therapists and other school personnel came in and out of the room throughout the day. The teacher had not noticed that everyone in the room, both teachers and students, stopped briefly and looked up every time the door opened. The door had a wind-chime type bell on it, the handle made a squeaking sound when turned, and the door made a slight slamming sound every time it closed. The person entering the room nearly always greeted people when coming in and sometimes conversed with teachers about personal matters. Sometimes fellow teachers would just come in to use the microwave. As people left the room, they usually said farewell to the group or individuals, then exited through the noisy door. This happened at least three or four times during the hour. I felt certain that the average first grade classroom is not getting so many interruptions. So, the teacher removed the decorative wind-chime from the door, asked the school to help with the squeaking door handle and slamming sound, and put a “Class in Session” sign on the door with a note encouraging classroom visitors to enter only at the top of the hour and to enter quietly to avoid disruptions. Voila! Less interruptions and quieter doors led to more attentiveness and less frustration on the part of the students AND the teachers.

NOTE TO LISTENERS AND READERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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