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In overwhelming environments, noise-canceling headphones may improve participation for children with autism

Beth Pfeiffer, associate professor of rehabilitation sciences, recently published research examining how children with autism who suffer from noise sensitivity respond to the use of noise-attenuating, or noise-canceling, headphones. In the article, which appeared this fall in Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, Pfeiffer and her co-investigators describe study participants’ positive response to using headphones and reported that while wearing headphones, children with autism were better able to participate in community settings that might be otherwise overwhelming.

In the study, children with autism and noise sensitivity participated in two trials during which they could choose to wear noise-attenuating headphones at school, at home and out in public with their families over a period of two-to-four weeks. In one trial, children had the option to wear noise-canceling around-ear headphones, and in the other trial, students could wear in-ear headphones with a noise-canceling function that could be toggled on and off. Both sets were provided by Bose, which funded the study.

“We know that individuals with autism spectrum disorder have a high prevalence of auditory hypersensitivity,” says Pfeiffer. “One common way most people deal with noise is by using noise-attenuating headphones. But very little research has been done on how headphones might be used by children with autism.”

In a qualitative assessment, the parents and teachers reported that the children were able to remain calm in loud community settings and quickly took advantage of being able to use headphones in overwhelming situations. According to one teacher interviewed in the study, one student “now requests headphones when his space get noisy instead of ‘screaming, swatting and trying to avoid environments.’” One parent described how, when a restaurant became too noisy, their child began using noise-attenuating headphones and was able to remain calm.

While some parents were hesitant that the availability of headphones would make their children dependent on the devices, Pfeiffer noted that wearing headphones allowed some children to acclimate to their environment and, once they began feeling comfortable in a new space, could test whether or not they could remove the headphones and still feel comfortable. In some situations, children would completely remove the headphones once they felt comfortable.

Despite the perceived benefits of a child using noise-attenuating headphones, parents and teachers reported that while wearing around-ear headphones, children would sometimes lose focus or be unable to engage in conversation. The in-ear headphones, whose noise-attenuating function can be disabled with the press of a button, allowed for the children wearing them to better participate while still self-regulating their environment when they needed to.  

“One of the issues with auditory sensitivity is that there are very few things that can be done on a universal level in the community to prevent children from feeling overwhelmed,” says Pfeiffer, who is working on preparing the quantitative portion of this study for publication. “We can’t change a public transport environment or a store. But the headphones provided an easy environmental modification that allowed the children in the study to participate. Community participation is an important component for health outcomes and quality of life, and noise-attenuating headphones are one piece that might allow that to occur more readily.”

— Tara W. Merrigan 

Posted:  November 13, 2018