How Can Sensory Headphones Help Your Child with Autism?

by Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP January 24, 2018

How Can Sensory Headphones Help Your Child with Autism?

Autism and Sensory Processing

TheSTAR 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, our Harkla blog articles focus on bringing you the resources and information to take a closer look athow sensory processing disorder manifests in your child with autism andhow 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 disorderhas 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 oftendefends 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 whoavoids 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 worninside 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 matterswhere 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 andthis 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:

Sensory Headphone Comparison Chart

Comparison Chart courtesy of The Earplug Store.

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP
Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with over 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia strives to help children by fostering a love of learning and supports families with her parent-friendly, informative blog posts. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn, LLC on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic, family, and educational supports. You can get more information on Alescia and her practice at

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