Too Noisy

Some people with autism have extraordinary sensitivities to sound that make it difficult for them to tolerate noisy places or activities. But other people with autism have different types of sound sensitivities, some of which are surprising.

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HUSTLE AND BUSTLE. Some people with autism are literally not able to tolerate a noisy environment. As much as possible, we can help sound-sensitive friends avoid noisy places like street festivals, pep rallies, or loud restaurants. Several of my students change classes when the halls are empty because of their marked intolerance for all the hustle and bustle and sounds in the hallways at school.

CERTAIN SOUNDS. Other individuals with autism tolerate noisy environments well, but may react negatively to one certain noise or noises of a specifically frequency or timbre. For example, youngsters may become agitated when dogs bark, a truck roars by, or school bells ring. Some of my students who usually seem to enjoy music therapy cover their ears when they hear a certain instrument or if they hear certain pitches. One student who doesn’t appear to have other sound sensitivities strikes out when she hears the tone bells and another screams loudly whenever I sing. A young adult friend explained her aversion to the pitch and timbre of certain instruments by saying, “It is the same as you turning away when you hear fingernails on a chalkboard.”

SUDDEN SOUNDS. Most of us jump when we hear loud or unexpected noises, but sudden sounds can actually trigger an emotional meltdown or withdrawal for some individuals with autism. Even people who seem rather oblivious to noises swirling around them can be startled if someone unexpectedly drops an object, sneezes, or closes a door softly.

QUIET SOUNDS. Some of my friends with autism are exceptionally distracted by very quiet and remote sounds. They may pay little attention to louder sounds, but become agitated when they hear a watch ticking, a faucet dripping, or someone walking quietly in another room. For whatever reason, other people with autism are particularly averse to silence.

TIP FOR THE DAY: We can help our friends with extraordinary sound sensitivities steer clear of sounds that trigger withdrawal or explosive behavior. But it is impossible to screen out all noise, so we might want to implement a plan to help individuals with autism gradually build a tolerance for noises that irritate them or trigger explosive behavior.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: 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. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas, practical Toolkits, and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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