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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Therapeutic Listening: A Sensory Game Changer

Our path to autism came through an initial Sensory Processing Disorder diagnosis when our son was 2 1/2. SPD may not have made it into DSM-5, but in our experience it is very real. What has also been very real in our family is the tremendous difference that occupational therapy has made in improving our son's sensory processing. OT has made a remarkable difference in the way our son experiences the world, which in turn has dramatically changed how he interacts with it.

Our son is both a sensory seeker and a sensory avoider, meaning he has a strong reaction to sensory input most of us hardly notice (like background noises), but at the same time seeks intense sensory input in other realms (lots of crashing into things and spinning). Most of his sensory avoidance has been in the auditory and tactile areas, and when he was a preschooler, we slowly learned that many of his behaviors were actually driven by sensory dysregulation.

Auditory sensitivities can be very painful, and also lead to a lot of anxiety, which in turn brings out other behaviors. To give you an idea of how auditory sensitivity manifested in our son, these are some of the things we saw:

  • Covering his ears at any loud or unexpected sound.
  • Distress in many places: restaurants, malls, birthday parties, and oh my gosh, public restrooms with those horrible hand dryers.
  • Hitting children during preschool music time so the teachers would remove him from the group.
  • The ability to hear things others can't like the motors that open the sliding doors to the library.
  • Fear of places with noisy air conditioning.
  • Distraction from background noises.
  • Screaming at anyone he perceived to be too loud.

The anxiety surrounding auditory sensitivities can be just as challenging (and some of the more minor forms persist even now that our son can handle the actual sounds). When he was very young, our son used to randomly hit babies and young toddlers, which was fairly distressing to all concerned (and did not make us super popular with the other families at the "squishy boats" play area inside the Southpoint Mall!). What we finally realized is that our son had such terrible anxiety about the possibility that a baby might start crying that he tried to take control by causing them to cry just to get it over with. That is a good example of why it is important to seek the underlying causes of behavior in autism, a la the TEACCH iceberg model.

So that is what auditory sensitivity looked like for our son in the past. We've tried many, many sensory interventions over the last 3 1/2 years, and the one that made a real difference for his auditory problems has been Therapeutic Listening. It is a specialized form of music therapy in which the child listens to very odd sounding music (very odd sounding!) that somehow changes the way the brain processes what the ears hear. It is expensive to buy the headphones, but there are grants available. We do not buy the music chips; our OT at Emerge has a listening library, and they change the chips on a regular basis. (And no, we were not compensated by anyone to talk about listening therapy.)

Therapeutic Listening is also supposed to help with other challenges like self-regulation, but I can't honestly say we have noticed that in our case. But just for what it has done, it has been a total game changer. I have talked to plenty of parents who say they tried listening therapy and it did not help their child. While it surely won't work for everyone, the one thing I want to make sure parents know is that the results are not instantaneous. For our son, it took about three months of wearing the headphones twice a day for 30 minutes a session to see a difference. But once the change came, wow!

It's been two years since he started Therapeutic Listening, and we now do it once a day - mostly out of laziness - because he is in a really good place from an auditory sensitivity standpoint. That's why we decided to share our family's experience - it has truly changed our lives for the better. Now we the parents are the ones covering our ears and cringing in noisy places (like those birthday parties at places like Chuck E Cheese), while our son just hops in and joins in the fun. The change has been amazing to witness.

Has anyone else out there tried Therapeutic Listening? Please share your experiences - good, bad, or indifferent - in the comments. We'd love to hear your opinions!

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