Sound Preferences in Autism
Are the sound preferences of ASD individuals similar to those of neurotypical individuals? What sounds appeal most to those with ASD? It turns out that those with ASD have unique preferences for sound. From my experience drumming with ASD students, I saw they often looked uncomfortable when loud sounds were played. I also noticed that they didn’t feel comfortable with me speaking too quickly. Noticing this unique pattern, I began reading upon the sound preferences of those with ASD to better understand their auditory perceptions and adapt my curriculum to better suit their needs.
Increased Sound Sensitivity and Decreased Sound Tolerance in ASD
I was lucky enough to meet Associate Professor Sungchil YANG, an auditory neuroscientist at the City University of Hong Kong. When I discussed this phenomenon with him, he explained that those with autism are likely to exhibit increased sound sensitivity and decreased sound tolerance.
He mentioned that those with autism exhibit a pattern of elevated neural activity in the auditory cortex and the thalamus. When faced with an auditory stimulus, their brains are more likely to have larger neural responses. This explains why they could be more sensitive in detecting subtle changes in pitch and be less tolerant of louder noises.
How Loud is Too Loud?
The loudness of a sound is measured using decibels (dB). For example, 0 dB represents the minimum auditory threshold, and 60 dB is the typical noise level for quiet office chatter. A neurotypical individual would typically find exposure to noises louder than 85 dB (similar to the loudness of heavy traffic) to be irritating. However, individuals with autism tend to have a much lower tolerance threshold; they would feel annoyed by sounds louder than 70 dB (similar to the noise level of a dishwasher.)
Two Types of Decreased Sound Tolerance Disorders
Decreased sound tolerance disorders are prevalent in individuals with autism. About two-fifths of autistic individuals are affected. Two of the most common types of decreased sound tolerance disorders are hyperacusis and misophonia.
Hyperacusis is marked by physical pain in the ears, while misophonia is marked by an emotional reaction when exposed to loud or unpleasant sounds. Hyperacusis often involves sensitivity to general sounds, while misophonia involves the sensitivity of specific sounds (like chewing.) Both types of sound tolerance disorders can affect one’s emotional well being, sleep quality, and concentration ability.
Recent Research into the Sound Preferences in Autism
Although not yet widely researched, there is emerging evidence indicating certain types of music are more pleasing to those with ASD. A study by Cibrian et al. has experimented on the effects of pitch and melody on the emotions of children with autism. The research team found out that listening to low pitches evoke more positive emotions than listening to high pitches. This may support prior research about sound sensitivity to overly-high pitched sounds. Also, they found that listening to popular melodies are more beneficial to emotions than listening to repetitions of the same note.
It is clear that individuals with autism have very specific requirements when it comes to music! Here are some takeaways:
1) Softer instruments like the egg shakers, tambourines, and castanets could be a better alternative to the drums for students with ASD.
2) Avoid instruments that produce sharp sounds or sounds that are too high-pitched.
3) Speak slowly and clearly. Speaking too quickly may overwhelm the students.
4) However, the one-size-fits-all approach never works. Some students have sound sensitivity, but others may not. When grouping students together, I have to refrain from putting two students with different sound preferences within the same group.
Cibrian, Franceli L, et al. “A Step towards Identifying the Sound Preferences of Children with Autism: Proceedings of the 12th EAI International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare.” ACM Digital Library, Association for Computing Machinery, 1 May 2018, https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3240925.3240958.
Danesh, Ali A, et al. “Hyperacusis in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Audiology Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8544234/.
Williams, Zachary J., et al. “A Review of Decreased Sound Tolerance in Autism: Definitions, Phenomenology, and Potential Mechanisms.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Elsevier Ltd., 4 Dec. 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763420306722.