How many of your child’s toys have sound? Yeah? Well, I’ll see that and raise you – uh- every single non-stuffed animal toy in the house and a few obnoxious books. I always know where the little guy is in the house because I can hear his toys. If I can’t hear a toy, there’s trouble.
A lot of my son’s sensory dysfunctions stem from sound. He can crave it or fear it but sound is an integral part of his disability. If I were to create a chart, sound and communication difficulty would be the top two contenders for a meltdown experience.
If you think about it, sound (for those without a hearing disability) occupies every single moment of our conscious lives. Even when we are sleeping, it is sound that can and does awaken us. Sounds that we don’t think of much, like fans in heating and air conditioning systems and those emanating from regular household appliances can be horrible sensory overloads for a child with autism. Couple the sensory overload with an inability to communicate what is wrong and voila – meltdown.
In my son’s world, I am only an observer. My observations are coupled with guesses. No doctor is going to tell me the physiology that accompanies what my son experiences so I can have that kind of understanding of why certain sounds affect him that way and others do not. How to help him navigate sounds in his daily life in my house is by trial and error.
Certain sounds strike sheer terror in my son. Most notably and recently, he has shown intense fear to loud vehicle noises. Stopped in traffic at a red light, a muscle car or loud motorcycle pulls up next to us. Even with the DVD playing and the windows up, my son will go nuts. He starts by yelling “GO!” “GREEN – GO!” and trying to get me to drive through a red light. When he recognizes his demands don’t move our car away from the offending sound, he will escalate to screaming, possibly to drown out the offensive sensory overload and partly out of terror.
Similarly, when we are in a parking lot and he hears a car engine start, he will look around frantically and run straight toward me, raising his arms at me to pick him up. He will bury his head in me and yell, “Car! Open the door! Now!” while freaking out. Once he gets inside he will start scripting, immediately. Lately, it’s been all math equations. This continues at a fevered pitch until he calms himself down.
It’s not just a matter of the volume. Both at home and at the office, when my son gets a hold of a remote control or a volume button, he will blast the sound to the maximum possible and no matter what sounds are broadcasting at the time, he will laugh hysterically and shout out, “No! Turn it down!” but he will not turn it down until intervention takes place. It appears he is okay with loud volume as long as he is in control of the decibel level.
Like some neurotypical kids, my son hates the sound of a vacuum cleaner. If a stranger runs an unfamiliar vacuum, like those used in hotels, there will be a meltdown. Leaf blowers, lawn mowers and power washers also can cause severe anxiety. Oddly enough, an automatic stapler and the sound of our copier also freak him out. Daily, because the therapists have not yet worked on that issue, we have to revise the times we photocopy and staple things to avoid his behaviors.
Sometimes, the sound is not supposed to be scary at all but my son does not like to hear it. Since he was a baby, my son has made it clear that “moo” is a forbidden word in my house. (What is funny is as I was writing this post, he walked up, read what I was writing and tried to shut off my computer! I can’t even write the word “moo” without generating some backlash. There might be more to that one after all…)
It used to be that my son did not want me to sing. If I tried, he would cover my mouth. Lately, he’s been asking me to sing, but this seems to be a repetition thing (clearly it is not because he is a fan of his mom’s singing voice). He will hear a song and then ask me to sing it again. Funny about that one – he only asks me to sing it over again one time.
Sometimes, there are sounds he absolutely loves. Then, we have dance time. I love dance time because, well, look:
Yeah, a little autistic shape identification thrown in at the end there. Dancing with the Stars maybe? His dancing to the sound of music can’t help but put a smile on my face. How funny that he chose the song, “Shout!”