Monday 17 May 2021

Apparently autistic people should not use headphones to help with noise sensitivity. Really?


A collaborative team of behaviourists and Psychiatrists wrote a research paper, in 2021.  They claimed that an autistic teenager with an intellectual disability should not wear noise cancelling headphones to help with his extreme responses to noise. They believed it simply taught him to escape from the problem.   Instead, they said that he should be trained to cope with the noises around him.  Their logic was that the young person may go out without their headphones, so must be trained not to respond to distressing noise other than in the mildest of ways.  

They conducted experiments on him, first subjecting him to various loud noises and recording his distressed behaviour, including self harm and sobbing.  There did not appear to be mention of ethics, consent, consideration of adverse effects, nor consideration of long-term harms within their paper.

He did learn to be quiet when subjected to painful noise levels, after some interventions were taught to him.
No-one seemed to have asked him whether this was an improvement to his quality of life.
No-one asked him whether he would have preferred to use noise cancelling headphones, a standard disability adaptation for so many autistic people.
No-one seemed to have tested whether this new strategy impacted on his mental health, his ability to focus, or his ability to communicate.

I ran a poll, on Twitter about the general principle of not using headphones.  These are the results.

A poll from Twitter, showing results.  Description in text.

The poll asks autistic people whether they believe autistic people should be trained to cope with noise instead of wearing noise cancelling headphones.

1.5% of the 4693 responses said yes.
5.2% said not sure/maybe.
93.3% said no, I do not agree.

I think that is fairly definitive, in terms of informal polls of social media.  One can hardly claim that it is a small number of individuals.

A lot of people explained why noise sensitivity is not just a poor coping strategy by us, or an irrational phobia.  They explained how noise cancelling headphones may enable functioning, thriving, quality of life, employment, socialisation, friendships.

We generally do not tell people to, for example, do without a coat and umbrella in the rain, in order to get them to tolerate being soaking wet when outside.

Adaptations exist for a reason.  They work.

Thank you for reading.