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  • Writer's pictureDr Chris Moore

Tips for Sensory Needs - Auditory

What is the Auditory Sense?

Simply put, this is the ability to hear sounds. Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of “The Out-of-Sync Child”, describes how the auditory nervous system is the first to become functional. Like our brain as a whole, it starts with a defensive setting – young babies are startled by sounds and gradually begin to learn which are enjoyable and which are not.

Over time, we modulate these sensations and develop a range of auditory skills. These include recognising the source of a sound and following it, comparing sounds and categorising them (we know the sound of a car horn, even if it is not the same car as our own) and the ability to remember, sequence and repeat sounds (such as learning early literacy and numeracy concepts). Carol talks about how the auditory sense is closely linked with the vestibular system, which you can find out more about in my “Movement” blog post.

What are the implications for a child who is over-responsive to Auditory stimuli?

These children are very sensitive to loud or sudden noises, such as the school bell, fire alarm or musical games. They can often be seen putting their hands over their ears. They are generally on-edge and experience a higher level of alertness. Seemingly gentle sounds, such as the buzz of fluorescent lights and the hum of the overhead projector, can disrupt their listening and concentration. Some may try to avoid noisy environments, like the dinner hall or playground, and may make their own noise to block out stimulation. Raising their voice or singing/shouting can be a means of counteracting a noisy stimulus.

How can we help children in school who are over-responsive to Auditory stimuli?

· Verbal instructions should be consistent and concise. Speak at a slower pace using a softer voice and ensure that the child can see your lips moving. It may be necessary to deliver or expand upon instructions during a quieter moment in a task or routine, so that the child is not overwhelmed by background noise. Visuals should be used as a means of reinforcing information.

· Help the child to let you know when it is too noisy. This may be achieved through a visual noise-o-meter or a cue card which they can use to gain your attention discreetly. Whole-class measures, such as visually indicating the appropriate volume of conversation for particular tasks, will be a helpful preventative measure.

· Consider the child’s seating arrangements. They may need to be sitting away from doors, windows, chatty peers and noise-emitting equipment (e.g. the overhead projector). Seating in carpeted areas or applying footpads to chair legs may help to prevent sharp and sudden sounds when students get up and move around.

· The child should have advanced warning of transitions to noisy activities or environments. Provide support through ear defenders or headphones. It will be important for the child to know when the noise will be occurring and how long it will last. This can again be communicated through visuals, such as a schedule which allows them to anticipate the activity and a timer which gives them feedback on the duration of the activity. Work preventatively by closing doors and windows where possible, so that the child is less likely to experience unpredictable auditory distractions.

· Schedule opportunities for the child to play or relax in a quiet and calming area. They may benefit from such a space in order to support their concentration in certain types of work. We also need to consider group activities. The child’s group could converse in the corridor or in a quiet room, so that the noise from other group discussions is removed.

· Providing an element of control can be essential in allowing children to gradually become more comfortable with certain types of auditory stimuli. Letting the child start and stop the tidy-up music or blow the whistle for PE activities can be simple ways of giving them a sense of agency and making the noisy experience more structured and predictable.

What are the implications for a child who is under-responsive to Auditory stimuli?

These children can respond inconsistently to noise – they may seem to ignore the calling of their name or appear unaware of ordinary sounds and voices. This means that they can fail to reply to verbal instructions or directions and take longer to answer questions. Quieter sounds and soft voices are particularly challenging for them to detect or discriminate. Some children may hum loudly, bang objects or use their “outside voice” as a means of increasing their level of alertness. They may also crave higher levels of background noise when they are completing classwork or homework.

How can we help children in school who are under-responsive to Auditory stimuli?

· Instructions and directions will need to be delivered in close proximity to the child. They may need to be seated at the front of the room or close to the member of staff speaking. Speaking loudly and varying our tone may help to ensure that they are listening and focusing effectively.

· It may be necessary to name objects and actions explicitly in order to provide further information for the child. Consider seating them close to visual or written sources of information or providing visual instructions, so that they can fill in the blanks of what they have missed or forgotten from a verbal source.

· We should gain their attention before delivering information, through the use of the child’s name or a consistent visual cue. Beat and rhythm, such as a clapping routine, should also be considered as a means of making information more sequential and predictable.

· Instructions should be broken down into smaller chunks and we should provide extra processing time before the child is expected to respond. We may need to scaffold their initial response to a question during a discussion activity, by providing examples or choices of possible answers.

· A key adult working with the child could provide opportunities for listening games (e.g. guess the sound), action games with fast-changing music, play time with loud or vibrating toys and noisy art activities (e.g. scrunching paper or popping bubble-wrap).

· We should consider providing a sensory diet. Allowing the child to listen to music through headphones may increase their alertness before or after quieter periods of work. They may need time in a designated space for banging, tapping or humming. Some may enjoy being jobs to do during the noisiest parts of the school day. “Heavy work” activities may also provide alternative methods of stimulation – see my blog post on Proprioception for examples of these activities.

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