To Wear or Not to Wear Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Many OT’s use noise-cancelling headphones to treat hyper-responsivity to extraneous sound. But this may not be the best long-term strategy.
Many clients exhibit hyper-responsivity to extraneous sound. So, it’s no surprise that, in such cases, many suppose the use of noise-attenuating headphones (headphones that muffle or cancel background noise) to be an apt treatment strategy. After all, when treating hyper-responsivity, what could be more natural than the removal of the offending stimuli? However, this may not be the best long-term solution. Indeed, the use of noise-attenuating headphones (NAH’s) has the potential to worsen the very problem it appears to solve.
While the use of such headphones may alleviate immediate symptoms, it fails to address the underlying auditory issues. In fact, it may exacerbate hyper-responsivity through, for example, a decreased tolerance to a wider array of sounds.
Early research in sensory deprivation (Zubek, J., 1969) indicates that sensation is essential to perception (i.e. processing of sensation). When we’re deprived of input to one of our senses for a period of time, we become sensitized to that sense. Even a short experience of diminished sensation, such as spending a period of time in a dark cave or movie theater and then coming out into the bright sunlight, may cause a very brief period of hyper-responsivity to light.
For individuals with a typical sensory system, the adjustment period is quick.
For individuals with a typical sensory system, the adjustment period to the deprived sensation (the withheld stimulus like light or sound) is quick. However, for individuals who have difficulty modulating sensation like those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, these periods of deprivation have the potential to increase reactivity.
“Noise cancelling headphones made things worse. I was more sensitive when taking them off.”
As one of our rather articulate 16-year-old clients summed it up: “Noise cancelling headphones made things worse. I was more sensitive when taking them off.”
Processing sound is critical for processing spoken language
Processing sound is critical for processing spoken language. It also provides important cues about time and space. These cues inform our ability to relate to others and the world around us. So, distortions in auditory processing like those resulting from the use of NAH’s may disrupt learning, language, and social skill development.
Based on this potential risk, my recommendation is to only use NAH’s where absolutely necessary. Moreover, as part of an all-encompassing treatment plan, therapists should incorporate a variety of sound-based tools (like those available from the Therapeutic Listening® toolbox) to assist with underlying auditory perceptual difficulties. As always, clients will most benefit from a comprehensive, individualized sensory motor treatment protocol since this provides the most well-balanced treatment plan.
If you are interested in a more focused look at auditory defensiveness, its accompanying impact on regulation, and auditory processing, please join us for an upcoming workshop “Exploring Auditory Defensiveness: A comprehensive approach to assessment and treatment.”
Zubek, J. (1969). Sensory deprivation: Fifteen years of research. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.