M.E. couldn’t pay attention to her homework. The landscapers had arrived, and the muffled sounds of their equipment had her looking around and running to the window every few minutes. Her brother sat on the floor with his LEGOs, oblivious to it all. He was four years younger, but his behavior was easier to manage than hers.
T.F. wouldn’t let his brother play video games unless he was upstairs in his room. He said that it was “too loud” even then, but the rest of the family could barely hear anything but a low rumble. If the sound wasn’t exactly as he wished, he would scream and throw toys until the volume was turned down. Thunderstorms were the worst. He was inconsolable.
The child that holds his hands over his ears is NOT the only child that is sensitive to sound. Kids who have to keep looking around and behind their chair, but deny that they are fearful or suspicious. Kids who try to control the conversation at a meal, and are the loudest member of the family. And kids who run from the vacuum, blender, or hairdryer as if it is attacking them, but have no problem playing their video games at high volume.
Defensive reactions to sound aren’t one-size-fits-all. They tend to be particularly strong at low frequencies, related to their difficulty in identifying exactly where the sound is coming from. They also tend to be strong at higher frequencies, and can affect the ability to perceive sounds like “f” , “s”, and “th”. When a defensive reaction occurs, muscles in the inner ear contract and reduce the ability to discriminate sound. This contributes to the appearance that a child has hearing loss. The inconsistency of this response should suggest another causation, but often that is explained by saying that a child is being manipulative.
And manipulated is how many parents feel. Children with auditory defensiveness can be controlling and oppositional as they try to avoid the sounds that startle them or increase their sense of threat. They often tend to strongly dislike large cavernous spaces such as gyms, rail stations, and even large churches. The architecture of such spaces “suck out ” the helpful sound frequencies that humans use to orient themselves in a space. A child that has difficulty interpreting sound in other environments will find that they feel incredibly unsafe when they have less sensory information available.
What can be done to turn this ship around?
Occupational therapists use therapeutically-altered sound as treatment. When combined with physical activities that improve visual and vestibular performance, many children (and adults) gain greater comfort with a wide range of sounds, and feel that their behavior is no longer considered being “bad”.
For more information, read Spatial Awareness and Sound: “Hearing” The Space Around You and Quickshifts: A Simple, Successful, and Easy to Use Treatment For Regulation, Attention, and Postural Activation