Listen!!!  Auditory Issues... Why Does The Autistic Child Have Such Sensitive Hearing?

The "Deaf Child" Syndrome... And The Concept Of Self!

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Another common trait of the autistic was certainly that of their sensitive hearing.  As with other issues related to sensory factors, this was another one of those issues where I believed perhaps several factors were at play, including the possibility of actual damage to those structures necessary for proper hearing to occur.  

Zachary's hearing had improved greatly since on enzymes... it took a few months, but he was definitely less sensitive to sounds than he used to be.    He was finally taking his "shopping earmuffs" off in stores and sounds, overall, did not seem to bother him as much... he could now better tolerate the humming of the lights or of the freezers in grocery stores.   He was much better able to handle general "background noise" since he had been taking enzymes. 

I also believed, however, that what so many parents perceive as a sensitivity to sound may not always actually be a sensitivity to sound but perhaps a sensitivity to "newly introduced" or "startling" sounds.   There had been many a time when Zachary had placed his hands quickly on his ears.   This happened especially when he heard a loud, unexpected noise, such as a broken muffler on a car or the turning on of a P.A. system in a large retail store.   What I found to be a tremendous help with these "unexpected" noises was simply to label them.   When a car went by that made a lot of sound, I simply said:  "It's a broken muffler", or when the P.A. went on, I simply said:  "It's an overhead announcement"... or something to that effect.    In no time, the noises no longer bothered Zachary... he no longer had to put his hands on his ears when he heard these sounds... and when he did hear them, he would simply tell me:  "it's a broken muffler", etc.   So, again, labeling helped him cope tremendously.

For these "unexpected sounds", again, if you think about them in terms of the inability to properly process partiality, or input from the senses, that also made a great deal of sense.   One adapted to the sounds about him as he walked or went about daily life.   An "unexpected" sound, however, introduced a new element into the equation... a new "part" to the "whole" that had to be dealt with... that had to be integrated.   Simply labeling sounds helped Zachary integrate them to the point that they were no longer troublesome.    By labeling the sounds, once again, they took on an identity in and of themselves and were no longer seen as "a part" that needed to be decoded.

For example, recently, I noticed a sound that always rang loud in our house… the whistling of the kettle.   I had not labeled this one for Zachary.   I noticed he put his hands on his ears when he heard it.   I simply labeled “that sound” as the “kettle whistling” and told him that that meant the water was hot.   He immediately removed his hands from his ears and stated:  “hot water”.   It had been that simple to help him “decode” that sound… to make him understand it and what it meant! 

In my opinion, the inability to properly process “parts” also explained why vacuums and hair dryers, for example, often seemed so troublesome for autistic children.   If you listened to the sound of these objects, they were not constants but rather changed with motion in terms of the actual "aspirating sound" and the sound of the motor itself.   The sound of a vacuum on carpet was different than the sound of a vacuum against the wall as one cleaned the edges of a room, or the sound of a vacuum on tile or wood flooring.   If you added in the rolling of the wheels on these surfaces, the sounds made by the removing and adding of various attachments, you indeed had many “unexplained sounds” from this one object alone.   Much of the same factors were true for the hair dryer.  Its sounds changed with motion, speed selections (high, medium, low) and the surface off which the sounds themselves reflected.  

The act of covering one's ears, in Zachary, was also due to his "not wanting to hear something"... yet another way for him to "ignore what he did not want to deal with".   The most specific example I could provide of this had to do with the phrase "get to bed".  

As I worked on the computer one night, before I knew it, it was approximately 9:30 at night.   The children had quietly put in another video and knowing fully that they were well past their bed time, they were being rather quiet - truly "little angels" in order not to bring attention to the fact that they were still up.   As I looked at the clock above my desk, I realized how late it was and said:  "ok, get to bed".   I got up and went the few feet to where the children were sitting.   As Zachary saw me standing next to the couch and heard me repeat "ok, get to bed", he immediately put his hands over his ears and said:  "no... no get to bed".  :o)   Of course, my heart melted as I laughed a little at his desperate attempts to stay up.   I simply said:  "You want to stay up?  Then you have to ask and say: 'mom, can I stay up please'? ".   Zachary repeated the question and I, of course, stated he could stay up a little longer.   So there you had it... yet, more proof that putting one's hands over one's ears was not simply an issue with sound frequencies... it was an issue with sound "content" also.  :o)

With Zachary, I found the sensitivity to sound varied based on whether or not the sound was something he heard verses something he himself emitted.   Zachary did not seem to “understand”  or be sensitive to many things he was told… yet, he could scream very loud, high pitch screams that were extremely offensive to all others and not be impacted by his own sounds!   So, in terms of issues with sounds, I found the best way to teach him many things was to have him verbally repeat a question and an answer.   Once he did that, it was “as if” it had been committed to memory, whereas “incoming sounds” were much, much more difficult to “hear” or “understand”!

I had noticed a variation of this in my autistic nephew, Andrew, as well.  At 11 years of age, Andrew was quite verbal.   Yet, if he was confused as he spoke and felt he had not said something "just the right way", the exact way he wanted to say it, just prior to "starting over" in terms of making his point or telling his story, Andrew made a motion to cover his ears.   Again, it was "as if" what he had heard, even coming from himself, had been "wrong" and as such was somehow "offensive" to him and so, to "block it out" or "do away with what had been said in the wrong way", Andrew simply covered his ears.   When he was now ready to "start over" and re-express what he had been trying to say, his hands "came down" and no longer covered his ears.   I was, therefore, convinced that "content" of what was heard also played a role in explaining why the autistic covered their ears!

The key  was again, in labeling as many of these differing sounds for the child - explaining that "this is vacuuming on a carpet", "this is vacuuming on a wooden floor", "this is the sound of sucking up dirt", "this is the sound of sucking up air", etc.  

My theory that autistic children could not properly process or integrate the “parts” they received from sensory input also explained several other things when it came to sounds.  

It explained why songs, movies, etc. could not be interrupted prior to completion.  My theory also explained why so many autistic children loved songs... and could easily memorize them even though they had great difficulties in other areas of communication... songs have a definite beginning and a definite end.  To interrupt the flow of the song and stop it prior to its completion, in a young autistic child, I believed would cause intense frustration for the autistic child as this would create a "partial" he was unable to properly process.    As with so many other issues, in time, I believed autistic children adapted to such “interruptions” as they were exposed to “more of them” and as such, they learned to better deal with them.   I found with Zachary, simply saying:  "all done" prior to interrupting a song or radio station helped him to anticipate the abrupt ending and thus helped him cope. 

Issues with the inability to properly process sensory input as it related to sounds also further explained why Zachary was so troubled by “open windows”.  Open windows allowed more sounds to be heard and as such, introduced “more parts” to an already confusing world!  For more on this issue, see my section on Biting.

The Deaf Child Syndrome...

The theory of issues with "partialities" also explained the "deaf child" syndrome.   The "deaf child" referred to the fact that an autistic child could often be called by his name over 50 times and still not respond.   It was “as if” he did not hear the parent at all.   As stated earlier, issues with “incoming sound” were much, much greater than issues with sounds produced by Zachary himself in terms of actually “hearing them” and “understanding them”!  Yet, when tested for hearing, everything showed up fine.   This happened with Zachary as well when he underwent hearing tests...nothing abnormal was found.  His hearing was fine.

Again, if you think about it, until "Zachary" had been labeled as "Zachary", he had no idea what that "sound" meant no matter how many times he heard it.   Human voices were all about.   Autistic children had come to accept those as "background noise" and so to hear someone calling out:  "Zachary" would be no different than that person calling out "chair".   To the autistic child, I believed, the human voice was something he had accepted as part of everyday life.  I did notice, however, that certain voice tones were more troubling for Zachary.  For example, I noticed he put his hands over his ears when he heard his uncle talk to him.   This was not a voice he had been familiar with in the past and as such, it was somewhat “unexpected”. 

When Zachary was made to understand that "his name", "his own label" was "Zachary", then, he responded.   Again, it had been simply a matter of labeling him as a separate entity as well – showing him he was also a “part” to the whole.

I believed parents made the mistake of assuming their autistic child "knew" his name... I would argue that for those who appeared "deaf", the issue was simply one of not knowing or understanding that they too, had "their label"... "their name"!

To teach Zachary his name, I simply said:  "What's your name?" and answered: "your name is Zachary".   I did this over and over until he grasped the concept of name.   It did not take long for him to understand... especially since I showed him how "my name was mommy",  how "his sister's name" was Anika, how the "dog's name" was Patches and so on.   He had heard all family members use these names... and so, showing him the names of others around him helped him to grasp the concept that he, too, had a name.   As he finally understood the concept of a name, he laughed as he said his name was "Zachary Patches" instead of "Zachary Brohart".   He knew this "got a response" from mom, as I jokingly said: ", you're not Zachary Patches, you’re Zachary Brohart" and to him, that was funny.  But, finally, I knew he understood the concept.  Once he grasped that, I taught him how to write and say his full name.   He finally knew "his label" and could easily respond when called.... and finally, "my deaf child" was gone!  For more on the issue of the "deaf child" and the concept of self, I encouraged all parents to also review my sections on "Look At You!  The Autistic Child's Inability To Look In The Mirror" and "The Danger Of Pretend Play In The Autistic Child" as these sections provided what I believed was critical information when it came to the autistic child's concept of "self".

Also, since Zachary experienced what I believed was a severe reaction to cod liver oil (in all likelihood due to its mercury or heavy metal content – see pictures of this reaction on my website and in the Appendix to these materials), his hearing sensitivities had greatly increased just after this incident.  Nothing in Zachary’s diet or environment had changed.  He had been getting ready for bed when I put cod liver oil on his skin.  Within 10 minutes, his ears were beet red… he slept restlessly… and by 4:30 am, he was having what I believed was a full allergic reaction – this incredible rash and extremely stressful experience lasted only 24 hours (so, I knew it was not poison ivy, etc.).   This reaction, I truly believed was the result of the cod liver oil I had put on Zachary!  Such a reaction, in a child that could be very sensitive to mercury or other heavy metals, would be very much in line with the theory that mercury and heavy metals in vaccinations were a real issue for these children in terms of the actual damage they could cause.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in our family that Zachary’s hearing was much, much more sensitive the days immediately following this reaction (this was in late August of 2002).   Sounds that had not bothered Zachary in a long time, bothered him again.   He was making progress each day, but this was a very noticeable setback for him.   The pictures of this reaction were truly “a jaw dropper” for parents and I encouraged all parents to view them on my website.   As a result of my suspicions, I decided to get the contents of that bottle analyzed and will post them on my website once received.  I, honestly, in my heart, did not know what else could have possibly caused this 24-hour reaction – other than the cod liver oil!

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