Sounding Board: Managing Sound Sensitivity with Kim Griffin

by SoundPrint Team

Kim Griffin is a sensory integration trained children’s occupational therapist. She has spent the last 20 years supporting children who experience sensitivities to sounds. You can find more resources to support sensory processing and sound sensitivity on her website

  • What is the impact loud noise has on autistic individuals? How does noise act as a trigger of sensory overload?

There is no one impact that all autistic children and adults will experience to loud sounds. The responses are individual. Sometimes it’s not the volume of the sound that is the issue, but the pitch or frequency. Some individuals actually love loud noises, they are usually more challenging when the individual experiences sound sensitivity.

Loud noises can trigger a fight, flight, freeze response. This is the brain’s protective response which it uses when it perceives there might be a threat.  If you think about a door slamming unexpectedly, you might jump, this is your fight, flight, freeze response. Your brain increases its alertness level to make sure there is not a problem.  Once you realise it’s just the door slamming due to the wind, your brain calms down. 

For autistic individuals who experience sound sensitivity, noises in the environment can continually trigger the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, freeze response.  This means their brain doesn’t calm down, it continues to stay on high alert.  Over time this can lead to sensory overload or overwhelm.  When this occurs, the individual might become unresponsive (freeze response), or they might leave the space (flight response). You can read more about sensory overload here.

  • Do you find that sound sensitivity results in avoidance of restaurants and public places due to noise?

Sound sensitivity definitely leads to avoidance of noisy places where possible. This is a completely adaptive response to something that the individual’s brain finds overwhelming. As a comparison, let’s use a sewerage plant. Sometimes we have to drive past these, usually we hold our breath. If given the choice, we would avoid them because the smell is not pleasant! For individuals who experience sensitivity to sounds, they avoid noisy places in the same way that we avoid smelly ones!

  • What can restaurants and venue managers do to provide greater accessibility for patrons with autism and sensory sensitivity?

Reduction in noise is definitely one step that can be taken to support those with sensory sensitivity. It’s also important to consider how the other senses might cause sensory overload. Visual distractions can be as exhausting as sounds for some.

Secondly, because language can often be a barrier, it can help give additional time for the person to respond to questions.  Often, we repeat the question because we think the person hasn’t understood, but sometimes they just need more time. Repeating the question gives their brain more information to process and slows their response.

  • What advice do you give individuals who find themselves in unpredictably noisy environments? What tools and resources are available for sensory regulation?

The main tool that families and individuals often use when in noisy spaces are ear defenders or noise cancelling headphones.  Many people find noise cancelling headphones more effective than ear defenders.  The noise cancellation can be used without music playing.

It can also help to complete activities that the individual finds calming before they to go into a noisy space. I explore many sensory regulation strategies on my website. These will differ for everyone, many adults report things like yoga, weights exercise, and mediation to be helpful. It’s also important to allow down time in a quiet space after attending noisy spaces!

  • Can SoundPrint be such a tool?

I think SoundPrint is a useful tool for identifying the level of noise in a space.  So, if you have come from a noisy space, then SoundPrint could identify a quite space you could go to for some down time!  It could be a great tool to map out your sensory day, to ensure that there were quiet periods.

  • How does the SoundPrint app empower autistic individuals to visit public venues?

SoundPrint will give individuals knowledge and choice over which spaces will suit their sensory preferences. So, whether they like loud or quiet spaces they can use the app to find the right place for them.