Sensory processing for parents and professionals

Specific Problems 

  • Auditory hypersensitivity:


What is it?

Auditory hypersensitivity means that you are annoyed or troubled by sounds that other people find normal. It is a defensive mechanism caused by a sound, an auditory stimulus, that is not supposed to cause a defensive reaction. Defensive mechanisms are normal reactions of our neural system. They alarm us in case of an emergency such as the smoke alarm, or the siren of an ambulance, police or fire engine. Sounds also have a function to inform us that we should become active, for example an alarm clock or school bell. Defensive reactions always influence our state of arousal. Of course to become active when the smoke alarm goes off is an adequate reaction. These are normal defensive reactions.

We speak of hypersensitivity when the defensive mechanism is triggered by sounds that are not meant to alarm us, but only to listen to and then respond to it. for example when someone is talking to us. But also sounds that we had better ignore, like the sound of the traffic outside when we are working inside, or the conversations of other people when we have dinner at a restaurant. In many cases defensive mechanisms can lead to hyperactivity, a state of arousal, bad concentration, lack of focus and clumsiness.

Because children experience the auditory stimuli as too intense, they can have difficulties concentrating for example at school or the day-care centre. They hear all the sounds in their environment and are unable to differentiate between important sounds and irrelevant sounds.

By decreasing and if possible regulating these defensive mechanisms we can improve the ability to focus and concentrate.

How do you recognise it?

The defensive mechanism to sounds can be avoidance, looking for a different stimulus, fear and even aggression. We can also make a subdivision in: primary reactions, secondary reactions and coping strategies.


·         Covering the ears with the hands when hearing an annoying sound.

·         Continuously talking or making sounds because you cannot listen to the voice of another person. The voice of someone else bothers you.

·         Avoiding places or situations with a lot of noise, like a cafe, playground or the gym.

Looking for a different stimulus:

·         When hearing an annoying sound, looking for another sensation to diminish the alarming effect of the sound. For example rubbing over your body, grabbing hold of an object and feeling it, or starting to move.

·         Making sounds yourself. Making sounds yourself is always less alarming than the sounds of others. It is possible that a person does not like the sounds of others, but enjoys making sounds himself.


Becoming anxious as a result of certain sounds.


·         Getting easily irritated by hearing certain sounds. The sounds are a constant source of irritation. Irritation is an early stage of anger which can easily lead to aggressive behaviour.  

·         Hitting yourself when you hear irritating noise.

·         Throwing or breaking objects when you hear a specific irritating sound.  

·         Approaching another person aggressively as a result of irritation caused by hearing a sound annoying to you. The defensive mechanism to a sound can be avoidance, looking for a different stimulus, anxiety and even aggression. Again we can make a subdivision into primary reactions, secondary reactions and coping strategies.

The response to an annoying sound can take place immediately, but sometimes the reaction is delayed, varying from several minutes to half an hour later. Some people use coping strategies , like avoiding large companies and crowded shopping centres.


What can you do?

During the sound:

·         Give a pre-warning before the sound comes. It is easier to endure when it is not unexpected.

·         Use or search other senses tot o make the auditory stimulus less predominant, like standing up, stamping your feet firmly on the ground, rub your arms vigorously, and hold something in your hands to feel. See Something to feel

·         Performing an activity with two hands that requires some force can be very helpful to endure an annoying sound. For example rub your hands fiercely, pushing your hands together or pulling them apart, pushing on a table or desk to roll yourself backwards and forwards on a desk chair.

The rest of the day:

Movement and experiencing support on the ground.
Being troubled by sound is very often not an isolated problem. More often there are more sense involved and there is an unbalance between the senses providing information of our own body and the “outside” senses. Sound is an outside sensory stimulus, and the less sensory information we get from our muscles and joints, the louder the sounds come to us; the more information we get from our muscles and joints, the “softer” the sounds come to us. Physical exercise enforces that information. Suitable games would be those that combine movement with firm support on the ground. When dealing with hypersensitivity to sounds, it is important to play such a game or exercise on a daily basis. For example:

·         The use of weights

·       Sitting on a ball or ball cushion

·         Sitting on a ball being touched with a cuddly toy

·         Sitting on a ball and moving to music

·         Sitting on a ball watching television

·         Lying on top of different materials

·         Towing on a blanket

·         ‘Skating’ on rugs

·         Touching and moving on your lap

Something to feel.
Being troubled by sounds means that we experience a sound as negative easily. As a result that we are unable to listen closely or understand what is being said precisely. We just experience the negative aspect of it. It is important to learn to discriminate between different sound stimuli in order to be less troubled by them. Learning to discriminate between different sound stimuli can be achieved by feeling different materials. The ability to discriminate is not specific to one sense. By learning to feel the difference between different materials or objects, we train the ability of discrimination which enables us to improve our ability to listen. When dealing with hypersensitivity to sound, it is important to do a feeling activity every day. For example:

·         Swading or wrapping up in a blanket

·         Rolling, walking on your knees or on all fours over different materials

·         Something to feel

·         Hiding under cuddly toys

·         Hiding in a playhouse or under a large piece of cloth

·         Playing with shaving cream

·         Playing with rice

·         Playing with chesnuts

·         Rubbing in body lotion

·         Massage with different materials

·         The use of the foot massage bath

Using sounds. 

When someone has auditory hypersensitivity he tends to be aggravated by sounds very easily, but it is the wrong strategy to avoid sounds altogether. By doing so the hypersensitivity tends to persist. It is very important to use sounds that are pleasant for someone. For example:

·         Dancing or moving to music in some way. Because of the movement the sounds can be endured better which increases the tolerance for sounds. Of course one should choose the right music. Music with many high notes is more difficult to tolerate.

·         Classical music as background music when doing certain activities. Especially Mozart is often found pleasant. Be careful to choose the right music: it should be pleasant to listen to.

·         Singing songs with movement, like simple children songs. Sometimes it is better to start with humming before the use of words.

Suggestions for adjustments and aids

Of course it is possible to adjust the environment in some way or to give the child with hypersensitivity an aid to help him. For example:

·         Diminishing sounds with the use of curtains, wall to wall carpeting or carpets, furniture made of fabrics, and if possible covering the walls with sound absorbing materials. Cushions and stuffed animals on a bed or couch also have a sound absorbing effect. Anything made of fabric has this effect. 

·         Avoid unnecessary sounds like having the television or radio on continuously without having consciously chosen to have this sound.

·         Give a warning when you know a certain annoying sound will come, like the monthly test of the alert system. It gives the child the chance to be standing already, stamp his feet firmly on the ground or make sounds himself at the same time as the alert goes off.

Use of headphones or hearing protections when working at school or at home. With or without music. If the main function is to diminish the sounds, we can choose ear plugs or other hearing protection as people use when working with loud machinery. Choose carefully during which activities you use the headphones and other utilities. Keep looking at the response of the child. The hearing protection can be ordered at by clicking on the picture. Also available in different colours and especially for babies. Also available in other stores specialised in products on sensory integration.

·         Tennis balls under the legs of chairs and tables.  Christine van Riessen, OT, works at an institution for people with a mental disability. She found a solution for a client who was annoyed by the sounds of the tables and chairs during dinner, by putting tennis balls under the legs. Simply make a hole in the ball and put it on the leg. A simple and cheap solution, especially when you use used tennis balls.


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