sensory overload – sound

ID-10043693 noise
Loud sounds are not just annoying – they can be downright painful. (image courtesy of digitalart at

I wish I had known about Tony Attwood at the time of Geordie’s diagnosis. The man is brilliant and explains the ins and outs of Asperger’s in a way nobody else seems to be able to do.


Recently, I completed an online course with Tony. Ten years down the track with numerous ‘courses’ under my belt, and I still gained a host of practical information and experienced a myriad of ‘a-ha’ moments.

The section on sensory overload was of particular interest because this is something Geordie has experienced over the years in varying degrees of severity.

Being subjected to a certain powerful or unexpected sound, smell, taste, sight or texture can be irritating, distressing or frustrating for the so-called ‘normal’ person — but for someone on the spectrum the same experience can be downright painful.

One point Tony made in the webinar was that a tendency to sensory overload in any given area is permanent. At the time, I found myself disagreeing. Over the years, Geordie has experienced numerous bouts of sensory overload, most notably with sound. I thought he had grown out of it, until something happened last night that made me want to apologise to Tony for doubting him.

First though, I’ll provide a bit of background.

Our initial (known) experience with sensory overload was in the public toilets. Out of necessity rather than preference, we would have to take Geordie into these places to change nappies and, later, to go to the toilet. Every single time we walked in, he would start screaming. Loud, ear-piercing, uncontrollable screaming that would not stop until many, many minutes after we had exited the area. It took several months to cotton on to what was causing this — the hand dryers. Those things are loud at the best of times, but for Geordie the sound must have been excruciating because the minute he saw one, even if it was off, he would go into meltdown. It got to the point where we would have to slink in so he couldn’t see the dryer, rush him out if someone used it, and even ask people to refrain from pressing the button until we had left.

Then, one day, the meltdowns stopped.

For a time, as a toddler, Geordie was also sound sensitive to helicopters. At first it was just the helicopters, then it was hot-air balloons, planes and helicopters, then the meltdowns began if a bird flew overhead. We became hyper-vigilant whenever we were outside. If we saw any sort of speck on the horizon we would either quickly coax Geordie inside until it had passed, or play ‘let’s cover our ears’.

Then, one day, the meltdowns stopped and it was safe to go outside again.

Certain activities at school have also presented an issue over the years: whole school assemblies; excursions that included a bus trip (which is most of them); concerts and band performances; and carnivals. I suspect extra noisy classes may also have caused issues as Geordie went through a stage where he would leave the room on a regular basis. These activities did not cause a traditional meltdown as such, but a flat refusal to enter the space from where the noise was coming.

Then, one day, this all ceased to be a major, daily issue.

We have been lucky to have been mostly supported in finding ways to deal with Geordie’s sensory overload with sound. Many of his teachers have found ways around it, helping him develop noise tolerance strategies; family have been supportive; and even many strangers have been understanding once we explained  what was going on. (On that note, though, there seriously needs to be more education about the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.)

For the last couple of years, excessive sound has elicited no more of a reaction from Geordie than it has from anyone else. So, perhaps you can see why I thought he’d grown out of it, but last night put paid to that gloating feeling I’d been experiencing.

‘Owww,’ Geordie said to me as he walked into the loungeroom.

‘What?’ I replied, ‘Did you hurt yourself?’

Geordie covered his ears, ‘That noise hurts my ears.’

What noise? I couldn’t hear anything at all.

‘The buzzing,’ he said, ‘from the lights.’

I turned the TV off and listened intently. There was indeed a faint hum coming from the lights. I could barely hear it, but it was hurting Geordie’s ears and we had to turn the dimmer switch on the lights down until the noise stopped hurting.

The sensory overload is still there; he’s just learned how to deal with it.

Bugger and Yay at the same time!

2 thoughts on “sensory overload – sound

  1. I was terrified of the vacuum cleaner because of the noise. In order to overcome my fear, I dragged it by the cord toward the door and told my mother I was taking the vacuum cleaner out for a walk.

    Every time my parents took me to a noisy place, I was terrified and jumping out of my skin every time I heard loud sounds. Growing up in a loud environment – the third floor above a main road, jammed constantly, with drivers who love leaning on their horns – I kinda got used to it, but I still hate noise. It can still make me feel anger, stress, and frustration.

    Earplugs and white noise machine can help.


    1. That’s it, isn’t it … you get used to different noises – but that doesn’t mean they don’t still hurt. It’s a hard concept for others to understand. Thanks for commenting.


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