March 20, 2015

The problems is3Does your child ever block his ears or suddenly run away? Or become very agitated and upset at mealtimes or in noisy situations. Or simply refuse to enter a building or go into the garden? If so the clue to his behavior probably lies in the sensory differences: specifically his hearing.

The problem that causes such reactions is hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to sound), a painful and debilitating condition that can make some sounds seem louder than they actually are. Worse still the person is generally unable to block out the sounds that hurt and that can leave them tormented by various everyday sounds that most of us ignore or at least tolerate.

Much of the research into hyperacusis has been done with older people who have tinnitus and yet hyperacusis actually affects a wide range of people, some of whom, like myself, have had the problem since childhood.

Josephine Marriage, the former Head of Pediatric Audiology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, in the UK has a particular interest in hyperacusis. Her research showed that each person had individual sounds that they found intolerable, ranging from noisy washing machines and vacuum cleaners to relatively quiet sounds such as a tissue being taken out of a box, a newspaper being folded or a dog barking in the distance. Similarly in my informal research people identified a clock ticking in the flat next door, the hum of a fan, the sound of butterfly wings and even the noise of other people eating.

Nowadays everyone is aware of noise pollution but, unless they have experienced hyperacusis themselves, most people do not appreciate how devastating its effects can be. In fact, because this is somewhat obscure, some people are unaware they have it – although their nearest and dearest may recognize that they become irritable, short tempered and stressed in certain situations.

Those people who are aware of it may go out of their way, often literally, to avoid particular situations as with one man who, come rain or shine, went out for a walk every time his wife did the vacuuming. It can also affect people’s social lives as they tend to avoid noisy situations preferring to be on their own or with just a few other people.

But when you cannot control your environment things become extremely difficult as with the unfortunately named Mrs Fussy who finally took her neighbors to court because the noise from the birds in the aviary in their garden kept her indoors. Easy to laugh perhaps but if you have ever experienced anything like it you would know that hyperacusis can indeed make life a misery.

Perhaps some well-known sufferers can tell us how it feels? Writer V S Naipaul gave a clear indication of the distress such hyper-sensitivity can cause when he said how ‘immensely happy’ he was when his hearing ‘began to degenerate.’

Similarly Annie Proulx, the well-known and highly acclaimed author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain” to name but two, finds excessive noise hard to cope with, which may account for the fact that she lives in the wilds of Wyoming, real – isolated – cowboy country.

In an interview entitled Dirt Rich writer Marianne MacDonald shed some light on this fascinating woman, finding that Annie Proulx couldn’t bear a lot of noise and that, as a kid ‘the most dreadful sound in the world’ was her mom vacuuming.

No surprise then that hyperacusis has such a dramatic effect on children with ASD especially when they have no control over the situation they find themselves in – as at school.


Top Tips

* Ensure he or she has a quiet place of one’s own where he or she can go when noisy things (like vacuuming, washing up, lawn mowing etc.) are going on.
* Try to determine which sounds she or he dislikes and the situations or places in which they occur. You can then encourage her or him to use earplugs or a MP4 player if appropriate so that one can cope more easily.


Hyperacusis though is not the only auditory difference that can affect such children as you’ll see next week.

Autism Decoded

About the author 

Stella Waterhouse

Stella Waterhouse first came across autism in the late 1960s when she met three very different children, all of whom shared the same diagnosis. She began researching autism in 1990 and is a published author of several books including A Positive Approach to Autism which attracted good reviews from such well known autism experts as Donna Williams and Paul Shattock OBE. She has also authored a series of concise but informative books for parents and teachers, and is currently completing her forthcoming series The Autism Code.

For more information see

  • This is my life.i didn’t even realize til into my 40’ relationships suffered,my work performance has been seriously affected.Never bad enough to send me screaming away.Just bad enough to cause problems in every aspect of my life.The cumulative effect I don’t even like to think about.Its depressing.

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. My boys are both non- verbal and I believe they have hyperacusis, specifically Misophonia. I mentioned this to my sons’ neurosurgeon during an unrelated visit. He proceeded to clap his hands unexpectedly. Since my son didn’t jump or get upset the Dr. determined that he doesn’t have hyperacusis. I didn’t think hyperacusis/misophonia worked that way. I am sure that certain sounds trigger anxiety and aggressive behaviors. What can I do to help them in the mean time?

  • Is it possible that the irritating sound could actually be people talking. My brother used to turn off the TV when he came into a room even though others were watching it. Unfortunately my brother has left home now and as an adult he is not coping very well at all. My mother was unable to maintain a normal relationship with him. Any time she tried to talk to him he walked off and I just suspect that his auditory trigger was people talking.

  • Sounds that rub against each other, for instance an old stationary bike grated on my nerves so much that I could not use the bike, even though I was committed to exercise. Bass music (the electronic bass, like those that wander the neighborhood blasting their “music”), and my next door neighbor playing her electronic organ are my two biggest annoyances. I live in a single family home, for heaven sake!! I should not hear my neighbor and her gosh darn organ!! It’s one of those low, deep sounds that travel through cars (and paper thin walls, apparently! LOL and I also get frustrated by my husband’s stereo. At least I an ask my hubs to turn it down or better, OFF! LOL The interesting thing is that both my husband and our daughter — the most musical in our family — are the ones who have hearing issues, too.
    Nails on a chalkboard? Not even a flinch! But that bass? UGH. I can even tolerate my son’s iPad playing some very annoying programs! LOL

    I enjoyed this article. Keep it up!!

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