How Sensory Headphones Can Help Your Child with Autism

Updated: Oct 19, 2018



originally written for and published on Harkla.co

Autism and Sensory Processing

The STAR institute estimates, based on their research, that 75% of children with autism have “significant symptoms of sensory processing disorder.”

Given that high correlation and comorbidity rate, Harkla's blog articles focus on bringing you the resources and information to take a closer look at how sensory processing disorder manifests in your child with autism and how to support sensory processing to help him/her make sense of it all.

For people with autism, the sensory processing dysfunction can manifest in language delays or deficits, fine and gross motor delays, strong sensory interests, sensory aversions, an inability to interact with people and objects, an inability to stay within an interaction, repetitive sensory stereotypies (stimming), and much more.

Sensory Over-Responsive Type and Sensory Defensiveness

A child who presents with an over-responsive type of sensory processing disorder has a low threshold for sensory stimuli - meaning, it doesn’t take much for him to be overwhelmed, overstimulated, irritated, or avoidant. This child is very sensitive to sensory stimuli. This oversensitivity or over-responsivity to sensory input limits the child’s willingness to play, explore, and feel safe or comfortable in his environment.

This over-responsivity can be referred to as “sensory defensiveness” because the child often defends himself (emotional or behavioral response), avoids, or tries to minimize the exposure to these sensations. Sensory defensiveness can be seen in any or all sensory systems and the child will avoid or become irritated by sensations, eliciting a physiological response that is referred to as “fight, fright, flight.”

For some children, the sensory aversions are specific to one area of sensory input. Whereas a child who seeks oral input may lick or mouth non-food objects constantly, a child who avoids oral input may eat a very limited diet of certain textures.

When a child is over-responsive or defensive to auditory input, he may avoid loud, crowded spaces, cover his ears at loud noises like the vacuum or toilet flushing, or startle at unexpected sounds. These children overreact to auditory information and it contributes to difficulties with self-regulation. Auditory sensitivities can lead to sensory overstimulation and even sensory overload. This makes it a necessity to have some auditory sensory tools in your sensory tool box for home, school, and on-the-go!

Sound blocking, Noise Cancelling, or Noise Reduction Headphones?

If you do a basic Google search for “sensory headphones,” you’ll turn up with a few related options for “sound blocking,” “noise cancelling,” or “noise reduction” headphones. So what’s the difference?

Sound blocking and noise cancelling are basically the same thing - they eliminate a majority of the auditory information in the environment. While these may sound like a good option for your child with severe auditory sensitivity, the reality is that they may not be the safest choice because your child will not be able to respond to potentially important information: hearing their name called, the horn of a car alerting them to traffic, a fire alarm or siren signally danger.

Noise reduction headphones reduce the actual noise level (decibels) that the ear processes but does not completely eliminate noise altogether. For children with auditory sensitivities, this enables them to participate in potentially loud environments without being overstimulated by the sounds around them. For those children who cannot tolerate anything worn inside the ear, noise reduction ear muffs are a great option as they are worn over the ears.

Your child may need noise reduction headphones or ear muffs in the following environments:

  • School cafeteria

  • School bus

  • Shopping mall

  • Grocery store

  • Movie theater

  • Loud, echo-prone rooms

  • Concerts

  • Restaurants

Noise Reduction Sensory Headphones or Ear Muffs

There’s a lot to consider when purchasing sensory headphones or ear muffs for noise reduction purposes. The Ear Plug SuperStore has a great breakdown of what a noise rating system entails and how it matters where your headphones/ear muffs are produced and made! They have resources on “Acute Noise Sensitivity (ANS)” and additional supports for users who find everyday noises irritating - much like kids with sensory processing disorder! Check out their website and this FAQS page for more information.

This comparison guide that they have put together highlights just some of the considerations you want to take into account when shopping for your child’s noise reduction ear muffs:


Our Favorites

We love the Califone Hush Buddies for their cute Panda, Tiger, and Bear designs! (They’re also available as headphones)


For easy shopability and more options, check out Ear Plug SuperStore or our favorite Amazon finds:


#anxiety #occupationaltherapy #autism