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Misophonia And Autism: Supporting Families With ASD

Published on 01/16/2024
misophonia and autism supporting families with asd

Misophonia is the scientific term for a person’s heightened sensitivity to specific sounds rather than specific volume levels. Most people with misophonia have particular sound triggers that cause various effects. Studies by the American Psychiatric Association show that about 3% of those with misophonia have autism. However, because children with ASD are prone to sensory overwhelm, misophonia and autism often go hand-in-hand.

Ultimately, misophonia is a type of sensory processing disorder (SPD). Where most people can hear a repetitive or annoying series of sounds and then filter those out - or just deal with them for a finite period - someone with misophonia cannot. Instead, they become hyper-responsive or display such extreme reactivity they cannot function in that environment. 

Fortunately, you can do much to support your child with ASD when sounds are overwhelming, avoiding the risks of meltdowns at home, in the classroom or school community, and in the public arena. In addition, the more you manage misophonia, the more chances your child has to participate in group activities and develop their social skills in environments they might avoid otherwise.

Coping With Misophonia Requires Thoughtful Strategy & Resources

If your child with autism spectrum disorder experiences misophonia, it’s time to create a family “sound strategy.” The sound strategy combines being proactive about potential triggers with having a sound-sensitive survival kit to support your loved one when there’s no way to control it.

When in the presence of a sound trigger, the majority of those with misophonia may show signs or symptoms like:

  • Extreme anger or rage. 
  • Heightened anxiety in the presence of the offending stimulus.
  • Having a meltdown or tantrum - or both.
  • Becoming highly agitated without being able to explain why.
  • Showing signs of extreme distress.
  • Exhibiting repetitive motions or movements, such as rapid hand flapping, hitting their head or ears, or rocking intensely back and forth.
  • An inability to pay attention, study, or focus when exposed to a triggering stimulus.

In most cases, especially with ASD, there are no medications, drugs, or therapies successful in treating misophonia. Avoiding triggers and blocking the ears' ability to perceive offending noises are a person's best means of managing heightened sound sensitivities.

Not all sounds are created equal when it comes to those with misophonia and autism

One of the most confusing things for those without misophonia is that loudness is unrelated to the condition. Also, sounds you may find annoying might not bother your child, while sounds you can barely hear may push them over the edge. Also worth noting is that while most people show signs of misophonia during childhood, others may experience it later in life. The experience may morph over time, too. So, an aversion to certain sounds may fade, and other aversions may crop up down the road. Finally, many children don’t experience misophonia until their adolescent years, and girls are more prone to it than boys.

The key is to understand your child is not making this up. They are not “overreacting” because their ear and brain hear things differently than yours. So, the family’s goal should be to honor individual sensitivities, identify the most common sound triggers, and try to eliminate them from the household whenever possible. If you can carry those same preventative measures into the homes of close family members or friends - that’s even better. However, the survival kit will come into play for unavoidable sound triggers.

Eliminate sound triggers whenever possible

Any triggers that can be removed should be within reason. In a home, this might include removing ticking clocks, never using pens with click-on/click-off functions, or teaching family members to chew with their mouths closed.

Interestingly, many of the most common misophonia triggers include mouth sounds like chewing with an open mouth, slurping, and tongue clicking. So, observing good manners in the family, for example - especially with siblings - goes a long way toward avoiding some triggers.

Other common types of noise triggers include:

  • Nail/finger tapping.
  • Tapping on keyboards (hard to avoid in some instances).
  • Knuckle cracking (another bad habit to break).
  • Yawning.
  • Repetitive clicking or tapping sounds from people or gadgets.
  • The crunching sounds produced while chewing crispy or harder foods (you may find your child has an aversion to foods that make sounds they don’t like).
  • Loud breathing or snoring.
  • Repetitive throat clearing or sniffling.
  • Silverware sounds (clinking or scraping on plates).
  • Insects chirping.

Also, studies show that those with misophonia are more likely to be sensitive to visual triggers, too. That’s certainly true for those with ASD or other disorders that intensify sensory stimulation. 

Share your child’s triggers with close family members, teachers, classmates, and friends. The more information others have, the more they can do to limit immediate sound triggers in their environments when spending time with your child.

Support your child’s overall wellbeing

It’s not surprising that things like lack of sleep, hunger, or stress all exacerbate or elevate the risk of misophonia experiences. Sometimes, basic “misophonia treatment” begins by maintaining homeostasis in other areas of the person’s life. You may notice that the more you focus on keeping your child well-fed, well-rested, and stress-free, the better they do in every aspect of their lives. 

Create a sound trigger survival kit

Eliminating sound triggers only goes so far. The reality is the world is full of chewing, knuckle-popping humans and spaces with repetitive taps, drips, clicks, and tick-tocks. So, a Sound Trigger Survival Kit is essential. Once your child gets used to using these tools, you’ll notice a decrease in extreme reactions.

Some things for parents and guardians to include are:

  • Sound-canceling headphones. If your child is also touch-sensitive, this might take some experimentation. Sound-canceling headphones may feel too tight to them, or they may not like the feeling of the materials on/over their ears. The key is to help your child get on board with “the mission,” which is to find sound-canceling headphones and earplugs (see next) they can tolerate. They might have to de-sensitize themself to wearing headphones first, after which the sound-canceling features are more appreciated. Your child’s teacher may already have a brand/style to recommend based on experience.
  • Earplugs. There are so many different earplugs on the market. Some are designed to be virtually invisible, which makes them more appealing to older children who may feel embarrassed wearing headphones. In addition, they can be purchased in bulk and easily kept in backpacks, travel kits, glove compartments/consoles, and anywhere else you can stash them - ready when needed.
  • White noise makers (or soothing sound makers). White noise can go a long way toward drowning out trigger sounds. Try using a white noise machine in your child’s bedroom or in common areas. Even a fan on high can help, and many children with autism are soothed by a fan’s white noise and whirling movement. You can also download a white noise app on their tablet or gadget, which they can listen to with their sound-canceling headphones if things are too intense. Some people are bothered by the white noise sound, so experiment with other sounds such as waves, water sounds, rain, other nature sounds, etc.

Finally, you can teach your child how to politely request someone to stop making whatever sound triggers them. However, this can be more difficult and depends on the situation or who creates the offending sound. If your child cannot discern who is safe or appropriate to ask and who isn’t, pass on this one for now.

Are Misophonia And Autism Compromising Your Child’s (Or Family’s) Experience?

Do you have a child or family member with misophonia and autism? The Autism Response Team uses applied behavioral analysis to create personalized plans that support the quality of life for our clients and their families. Schedule a consultation with us to learn more about how we can help create a personalized plan to handle your child’s misophonia.

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