All About Auditory Sensitivity

Sections in this post:

  1. Daily Life Considerations with Auditory Sensitivity
  2. Different Types of Auditory Sensitivity
  3. How It Feels
  4. How Non-Autistic People Can Help
  5. Conclusion

1. Daily Life Considerations with Auditory Sensitivity

Because I was undiagnosed in childhood, I used to think that everyone had pain with loud/moderate sounds. I thought everyone was pretending not to be in pain. I did this all the time. Even after diagnosis, it took me another few months to learn that this thing I’ve experienced my whole life (first memory was 4-year-old me crying/screaming due to a loud movie), was actually an autistic thing. And other people didn’t have it. At all. They weren’t “pretending.” In fact, it was just me..

Now I do sometimes wear headphones. So this is my new routine and thought process to avoid autistic burnout and reduce stress levels:

These are things I have to consider every single day to be as efficient with my energy as possible:

  1. Figure out if I’m going to any type of meeting that day.
    • If yes, can I get out of it?
    • If yes, do I completely necessarily need to be there?
      • If I have to be there (if yes), can I wear my headphones or will I need to talk to people?
      • Will I have to bring my earplugs instead for emergency purposes and simply brace myself for the entire meeting?
    • What is the room like? Is it a very small room? Is it concrete?
      • May have to leave the room if it is concrete and you can’t wear headphones.
      • Can usually get by if it is carpet and less than 6 people in a room, but that is a very unlikely occurrence. Machine noises increase auditory stress as well.
  1. Figure out if I am walking outside today, and where, and with whom.
    • Am I walking by buses?
        • Am I alone?
          • Always Wear Headphones.
          • Do not wear headphones and pretend not to grimace, as people will want to make small talk with you on the journey. They will walk slower than you normally would and next to loud things that you would normally stay away from. This will be taxing.
        • I’m alone – This is a very unlikely day.
  1. Figure out how bad my tinnitus is.
    • Is it really bad today?
      • Yes – Don’t wear earplugs. Only wear headphones for a short amount of time.
      • No – (Usually it’s not too bad and sometimes I’d rather have tinnitus than hyperacusis).
  1. Things I don’t usually take into account that I regret later.
    • Are my ears popping a lot today with moderately loud sound due to clenching my teeth last night?
      • Yes – You should’ve worn headphones! Can’t do anything about it now. Plus, there are people.
      • No – Well, that’s good.
  1. Am I going to be by constant buzzing machines all day?
    • Yes (very likely, almost always). Take headphones and put them on when you start getting irritable. If there are people there, you won’t, and you’ll still get irritable.
  1. When you ask someone if it is loud, don’t trust them!
    • Other people do not notice machine noises.
    • Other people don’t understand how noisy it can get when there are multiple people talking in a room, even if it is a small number of people to them (4-5 people or more).
    • Other people do not have tinnitus, auditory sensitivity, hyperacusis, and TMJ!

Note: Sensory sensitivities are not constant. Just because someone could “handle” noise yesterday does not mean they can handle the same noise today. Everyone has their own range of what is comfortable for them but vary within that range within minutes/hours/days/months.

This list may vary depending on what I can tolerate daily, as sensory sensitivities change with stress and tiredness. I may have to completely avoid certain things, or wear headphones when I really don’t want to (mostly due to other people’s perceptions of me). I have learned that putting my needs first can help decrease my stress substantially, even if that means I miss some events or go, but look strange to some people. It’s definitely been worth it.

2. Different Types of Auditory Sensitivity

My auditory sensitivity:

I have an amalgamation of difficulties with hearing, and I also have very good hearing and likely great auditory working memory.*

However, the difficulties are often completely misunderstood by non-autistic people, so I’d like to explain.

List of different auditory problems:

  • Hyperacusis
    • By far, my biggest problem regarding my autistic experience.
    • Even sounds around 50 dB SPL can cause a startle response in me, especially if I am concentrating on something. And it can also cause a stabbing pain in my ears on bad days.
  • Auditory Sensitivity/Information Overload
    • This is when my brain goes into shutdown from trying to pay attention to too much auditory input that I am constantly hearing. Sensory overload may happen at a restaurant, or a conference, or even just a “small” social event by NT standards.
    • This is when you hear two radio stations (or more) inconsistently, but very clearly. So I will hear half of a conversation maybe 30 feet away from me while also listening to someone I’m in a conversation with. They slowly start overlapping and it makes it hard to think and respond to people.
    • In certain circumstances, this gives me an advantage. I have been able to (if I’m not socially engage and only a few people are talking) listen to 2 entire conversations at one time and obtain more information than most NTs would. However, most environments are not suited for this (concrete floors adding reverb makes it even easier to hear conversations across the room/hallway).
    • Important note: We hear these things almost all the time. This is why, even when not in shutdown mode, it is so hard to respond. I am constantly pretending that I did not hear the ventilation, or some stranger talking on the phone, or a dog barking, or the refrigerator hum, while talking to you. This is to me, one of the biggest reasons it is hard to verbally speak to other people in a conversation format.
      • Things I don’t expect to be a problem are problems because for some reason the event is jammed into one tiny room with concrete floors and a low ceiling, even though there are many other rooms available. The reverb has been so bad that even wearing headphones hasn’t helped.
  • Tinnitus
    •  make sure to turn the volume down: I have a tone like this one constantly playing in my ear, with some higher frequencies mixed in, and with some frequency fluctuation often.
    • I obtained tinnitus (or made it worse) from going to a theme park  (and maybe also from wearing noise-canceling headphones during it). I can generally go to sleep and can ignore it most of the time. It’s not absurdly loud most days, maybe a few times a month. I think about it the least of all.
  • Tendo-mandibular Joint Syndrome
    • I have this from clenching my teeth at night all my life. Occasionally it can cause jaw clicking in the mornings, which is really distressing when eating breakfast.
    • Some days (very random to me) my ears will pop like they are pressurized. I literally hear the sound of Rice Krispies crackling in my ears about 0.5 seconds after the onset of each word someone says, or after some other noise. It makes it very difficult to understand the person speaking as it’s very distracting. This happens when I hear moderate sounds (even 30-40 dB SPL). Even people talking to me can cause this.
    • It’s almost the most frustrating of all because it does not happen very often (3-4 times a month) so I do not think about it until I’m in an auditory situation I cannot get out of – only to realize that my ears decided to pop constantly today. It is unpredictable as to when my ears will pop so it makes me feel rather helpless and creates the most instant anger I get from anything (it’s almost like it causes information overload itself, from not being able to predict the noise – similar reason to why I get angry about people coughing.).

3. How It Feels

To many people, it is hard to imagine that sound can somehow cause pain. When I hear a loud noise (which for me, is minimum 50-70 dB SPL depending on the day), oftentimes I get a physical stabbing pain in my ear (from hyperacusis). I also get a startle response, especially for high frequency sounds, like the air compression noise when a bus stops (still considered by me to be the most horrid sound in existence, above even horror movie screeching violins and John Wick 2 tire screechings).

I was reading people’s reactions to the movie The Quiet Place and how startled they were every time they heard a noise in the movie, or even how annoyed they were about people eating popcorn. To everyone who feels that way – imagine if that literally happened to you every single day of your life. Every time someone slams a door at work (or just lets it close) my body decides to be literally startled by it. It feels like my body is paralyzed when this happens, although it is not. Sometimes I will look similar to someone who had just been scared and make some type of quick movement, since, you know, I was startled! It is so hard to concentrate when this happens every 5-10 minutes all day! Some days I don’t notice it as much as my auditory sensitivity, and it definitely changes daily (depends on stress/tiredness/randomness), sometimes hourly, but it never simply just goes away.

Worst auditory things for me: Buses stopping, weed-whackers, lawnmowers, beeping construction things, honking, vacuuming, high-pitched buzzing from machines/lights/laptops/tv’s/computers/ventilation, loud keyboards, randomly-timed clicking noises, and so much more.

4. How Non-Autistic People Can Help

I was so on the brink of a meltdown one day that I had to wear headphones. It was because of terrible computer speakers which I didn’t control the volume for. I really didn’t want to get them because I knew people would be confused, but I also knew that I was about to have a shutdown soon and wouldn’t be able to talk. So I got them.

After the meeting, someone I didn’t know asked me, “Why do headphones make you hear better?” They sounded very confused. They were waiting for an answer. Someone else covered for me thankfully as I was pretty frozen by the question.

I wasn’t annoyed that they asked the question. I was annoyed that they seemed to suggest that it was impossible for me to hear better with headphones on – the assumed answer in their befuddled, almost questioning tone.

What I wanted to say: “Why do sunglasses help you see better?”

In no universe that I know of (I’m probably wrong here because I know nothing about this), has a person ever gone up to someone who knows they are wearing a hearing aid and asked, “Why does wearing hearing aids make you hear better?”

Doesn’t that seem like a silly question?


You see a person with headphones.

Don’t assume that:

They can’t hear you

They are listening to music so they can’t hear you

They want to be left alone

They are being “stand-offish” or avoiding someone

They are antisocial

They are wearing them specifically so you don’t talk to them.

They are sad or moody.

Headphones may help many people:

Regulate their mood

Regulate their sensory needs (hypo/hypersensitivity)

Either by blasting music to get rid of other more annoying noises

Or by not playing music, or playing quiet music, to decrease outside sound

Concentrate on their thoughts or what to say to you

Concentrate on the person they are talking to by decreasing environmental noise and/or reducing reverb.

(And yes, of course, sometimes people are just listening to podcasts. I can still hear you when listening to a podcast, too, of course!)

5. Conclusion

I have never understood why wearing headphones (i.e. listening to music, assuming) is considered rude or disrespectful. I hear just as well with headphones as a non-autistic person hears without them. That person who asked why I wear them could clearly tell I heard “better” with headphones on because it was much easier to think and verbally speak  and respond when I wore them.

I mostly only wear headphones for walking outside and for grocery shopping, but I decided to wear them when out this last weekend. I went to a casual restaurant I had never been to. It had concrete floors. It was one of the worst auditory spaces (physically) I had been to in a while. I would have likely had a shutdown at some point if I had not been wearing my headphones, or would have had to leave.

I was so thrilled that I could exist in that space, even if people may have ignored me or looked at me strangely because of them. I shouldn’t have to be in pain so that I seem acceptable to others.

Just like most of us put on shoes when we go outside, because concrete is not made for our feet, I put on headphones, because society’s noise was not made for my ears. The functionality is the same.

The reactions, judgments, and interactions, however, are not.

Why can’t we change that?

*check out this amazing study where autistic adults were more likely to hear someone say “I’m a gorilla” in the background of an auditory listening task, while also accurately doing the actual assigned listening task at the same time, and while listening to up to 6 different people talking. Non-autistic adults rarely heard the “I’m a gorilla” voice in the background.

6 thoughts on “All About Auditory Sensitivity

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great explanation, thanks! I have similar issues but (1) not tinnitus and (2) sometimes I can ‘tune out’ sounds to some extent – it depends how overloaded I am in terms of other senses and number of things I am thinking about. It’s also better when I am taking antidepressants (for depression not sensitivity which I sometimes find an advantage as long as I can take regular breaks in places with low sensory input) which is really interesting (not all antidepressants are equal in this though – for instance current one (SNRI) not as good as SSRI+NRI so suspect it is some of the ‘off-target’ effects.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I wear silicone earplugs that look like little xmas trees – they take a few days to break in and last ~5 years. 🙂 I’ve got a few different strengths so I can keep my ears happy, although it’s been ages since I’ve needed anything but the lowest strength. they just feel like part of my body now, and people seem to assume they’re hearing aids so nobody’s ever been a jerk about it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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