Autism AMA: Headphones

Back in April, I offered to participate in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) for my fellow teachers, and I responded to their questions as time allowed. Over the next few days, I’d like to share some of those questions and answers with you.

Meghan asks:

I have had many autistic students who wear headphones because loud sounds bother them. Is this an issue for you? If so, how do you deal with it since you are around musical instruments all day? How does that affect you?

Oh, headphones. Have you seen much success with headphones? See here’s my beef with headphones – They’re touching my head. Geththemoff geththemoff geththemoff geththemoff geththemoff geththemoff! And then, they don’t actually eliminate any of the noise in the classroom; they just make things sound muddled. Softer sure, but harder to process. To recap: touching my head AND making the world even harder to understand. Made of fail in my book. Of course, every kids is different, but I’ve seen more autistic friends just grow frustrated and angry with their headphones than actually see them as a benefit.

Yes, loud sounds bothers me. But volume actually takes a back seat to quantity. See, when I’m in the cafeteria (for example), my brain seems incapable of prioritizing the sounds around me. You do it naturally. You probably call it “having filters”. This enables you to carry on a conversation with a child regardless of the other stuff going on in that setting. Me? The beep of the cash register, the lunch workers telling each other what’s running low, the verbal altercation between two classmates, the tapping of trays, the dozens of other conversations going on – all of these are trying to be simultaneously processed by my brain simultaneously. As I type this, the sound of a vent about eight feet away is every bit as loud as the sound of my fingers on the keyboard and a phone ringing in the office.

Timbre more than volume gets under my skin. Our glockenspiels (small xylophone-looking instruments with metal bars), metallophones (big xylophone-looking instruments with metal bars), and recorders (those plastic elementary wind instruments people incorrectly call flutes) can physically hurt to listen to. Add to that the variable of a large quantity of sounds happening at once, and it can cause problems with me. One of the first things I do is limit our use of my “problem” instruments. I know they may set me off, so we only use them when we have to. Second, I limit our instrumentation. Instead of arranging a song for voices and five different classroom instruments, I may arrange it for voices and two instruments. Additionally, I have modified some of our instruments to be less harsh. Several mallets have additional coverings to muffle the sound they produce, and a few of our drums are covered as well. Some of our barred instruments have additional padding under the bars to they are less resonant. They are choices made to preserve my sanity that someone else might see as reducing the musical integrity of the instrument.

If you were in my classroom on a particularly taxing day, you might notice small periods of time where I would disengage from instruction, close my eyes, and get very quiet. I was doing the mental equivalent of rebooting, letting my senses disengage for a few moments and then re-engaging them after a short recovery period. Think of it like a computer: you have too many processes open, and suddenly everything freezes and becomes unresponsive. Then you hit ctr-alt-del to see what program is causing the holdup. Or you might reboot entirely. In an autisctic child, a full reboot usually manifests in a social seizure.

Speaking of, I can also have what I call a “delayed social seizure”. Let me define that before I explain it. Social seizure is how I refer to meltdowns. Autistic meltdowns are almost always triggered by social stimuli, and when they are triggered, the individual can lose control of physical and verbal faculties. Hence the term social seizure. Delayed simply means that it’s going to happen; the meltdown is inevitable. I’m just not allowing it to happen right now. So I say to myself, “Self, you’re going down. Can we do this during lunch instead?” Self says, “Fine, if you insist,” and then I go about my day in an escalated but controlled state until I can lock my doors, turn off the lights, and shut down for a while. This took a long time to develop, and I have no idea how to teach someone else to do it.

Nothing had a 100% success rate in the classroom, but those are some of the ways I would try to regulate auditory overstimulation as well as my reaction.