Question: What should you do when you are Autistic, have a sensory processing disorder, and are overwhelmed by the loud fan during a home energy audit:
A. Get used to it, pal, because you have to learn how to live in the real world.
B. Wear noise-blocking headphones and shriek at the top of your lungs.
C. Leave the house and go someplace quiet until the energy audit is over.
D. Do ‘Listening Therapy’ to desensitize your ears/re-wire your neural pathways.
Correct answers: B and C
The fan was loud even to me, and much more so to R. Wearing earplugs and/or making vocalizations is a strategy many autistic people use to block outside noise or other stimuli that is threatening to overwhelm. I asked R if screaming helped, and he said it did. This is a great example of R doing exactly what he needed to do to be comfortable and avoid a meltdown.
An even better option would be to move away from the offending stimulus, though that isn’t always possible.
Though it continues to be used widely, I’m more than skeptical about the claims “Listening Therapy” makes. See the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Working Group in Auditory Integration Training recommendation against this therapy. The Occupational Therapist at R’s school recommended it to us last year. It didn’t make any difference that I could tell.
And no. It’s not ok to expect autistic people to suck it up and get used to it. R experiences the world through his senses in a fundamentally different way that has everything to do with neurology and nothing to do with desensitization through repeated exposure or trying harder to hold himself together.
Though the things he is sensitive to change over time (anywhere from days to months to years), he tends to jump from one right to the next. For a while the sound of passing cars was unbearable. Then it was flushing toilets. Then buzzing bees. He either avoided the sounds or covered his ears, and eventually they faded away, only to be replaced by other sounds.
The audiologist at the Children’s Hospital (where we had his hearing tested and had custom earplugs made) explained that while his hearing is very good, he doesn’t hear any better than the average person. The difference is not in the ear itself, but in the way his brain perceives the sound. And though the details of his sensory processing may change from day to day, month to month or year to year, and though his brain will certainly grow and develop and change, his basic neurology, WHO HE IS, is not going to radically change. He will always be autistic, and that is as it should be. His senses are always going to process things differently, and therefore the goal should be for him to learn how to advocate for himself, ask for and receive reasonable accomodation, and know when he needs to remove himself from situations that his brain can’t handle.