How does noise affect the autistic mind?
October 26, 2009 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I understand that noise can become overwhelming rapidly to those in the autism spectrum or with ADD/ADHD syndromes due to increased sensitivities of all the sense perceptions, but I have also heard of research that suggests a certain measure of white noise and some kinds of music can help both ADD and autism spectrum young people focus their brains.

I am trying to get a sense of how these two seemingly opposing responses can coexist, and whether the noise helps mask internal brain noise, to stimulate understimulated, low activity regions of the brain, or other explanations for this response.
posted by bonsai forest to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Well there's a difference between the noise you choose and the noise you have no control over. I can't stand crowd noises, loud ambient noise, children screaming, etc. But at the same time, I always have to have music on to concentrate. It feels like it engages the distractable part of my brain so it has something to focus on while the rest of me can get to work. If it's something I have no control over then my entire brain wants to focus on it (a coworker occasionally plays smooth jazz JUST loud enough to distract me - but my own music doesn't distract me in that way because I know what it is).

And loud noises just hurt. Not just my ears, but all of me.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:49 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Totally anecdotal ADD'er: Music or white noise (i.e. thematic or repetitive sound, especially: rap, classical music, droning fan) helps calm my brain by giving the background 'processes' of my brain something to hum/drone/nod/bounce along to while the more conscious parts of thought can dedicate themselves to doing whatever. This is why I do my best work nodding along to some beatz :)

More sporadic, intermittent or dynamic noise (especially multiple, shouted, overlaid conversations) practically paralyzes my brain. The whole of my thought processes attempt to follow the various threads of sound, with the end result of "Wow... what... huh...". The distraction effect isn't all that bad, unless I'm trying to speak over 2 or 3 other conversations that are attempting to speak over mine.
posted by wrok at 7:52 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

It feels like it engages the distractable part of my brain, said elsietheeel.

I get EXACTLY the same effect by working at a cafe. The bustle does wonders for me. Funny how different it is.

The brain is a little like a family. When dad has to work, you better have something to do for the teenager.
posted by krilli at 8:21 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have Adult ADD and techno music or cardio music with a high beats per minute helps me focus well.
posted by Hands of Manos at 8:23 AM on October 26, 2009

Not a direct answer, but it might help you get started (presuming you are, indeed, just starting): this short piece by Rosemary White on "Individual Differences and Sensory Processing."
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:26 AM on October 26, 2009

Along the lines of the last suggestion, you might want to take a look at Temple Grandin's "Autism The Way I See It" which has some sections on her first-hand experience of how autism affects her sensory processing. Temple is also very big on pointing out that not all people with autism experience sensory difficulties the same way - you're going to find people who react very differently to different sorts of sensory inputs, so no one blanket explanation of "this is what's going on when people with autism have sensory issues and this is what you can do to fix it" is going to work.
posted by Stacey at 2:29 PM on October 26, 2009

There are some reports of babies who like white noise (aka the vacuum cleaner). The theory is it reminds them of the whooshing sound of being in the womb.

People use white noise machines to help them sleep - it drowns out the other noises. It's a constant drone & gets rid of the sharp shocks of other noises.

I listen to chant music, it does the same sort of thing & is, you know, music.
posted by Muffy at 5:41 PM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: Many thanks to all the people who have responded to this so far. The personal stories shared were very helpful (I did especially like the two points raised regarding control over noise and static versus dynamic noise bands)--and I also appreciate the reading recommendations. So, once again, with much appreciation to everyone thanks for weighing in!
posted by bonsai forest at 6:17 PM on October 26, 2009

As someone with ADHD, and who's studying neuroscience, I've thought of this a bit.

Quality of the sound definitely matters, as does whether you have control over it. On a cognitive level, from personal experience and others I know, it seems that music/white-noise/etc allows me/others to be distracted by just *one* continuous thing that we can control, as opposed to being constantly distracted by various environmental things. Once we've been able to narrow down what's taking our attention, we can more easily tune it out.

On a more basic level, it seems certain types of noise may aid ADHD people in a similar way stochastic noise can increase the signal-to-noise ratio in any informational system (which is all the brain really is). A good (but very science-y article) on the subject is here.

Less directly related to your question, but brought up by other commenters, is the fact that those with ADHD/Autism Spectrum Disorders really do process sensory information differently than others at a *very, very basic level*, often before you're even aware of it.
posted by dantekgeek at 9:28 PM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: Again, thanks so much to all who are responding. To those who have mentioned that "white noise" increases their ability to focus, have you found that in our world of increasing numbers of noise sources in competition you have needed to increase the volume on your own noise distraction-of-choice in order for it not to be blocked over by all the other noise going on?
posted by bonsai forest at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2009

Even before I was diagnosed with adult ADHD, I learned that in order to concentrate at work, I needed white noise. Even music with variable melodies or lyrics won't work for me when I am concentrating on my work because music is too distracting. I currently use some apps for my ipod touch, Ambiance and White Noise, to play various types of white noise or nature sounds, when I am focusing on a task.

This is mainly because my office is set up with 150 cubicles and not enough conference rooms, so people tend to work together in cubicles, having long, long, long conversations. There are often 2 or more conversations happening in any of the 5 other cubes in my block.

To answer your last question, I do need to constantly increase the volume if conversations start to infringe on my little sound bubble. I don't need to be totally deaf to the world, but my chosen noise source has to be much louder than anything else I could hear so that I can focus on it and my task at hand and really drown out the rest. If there aren't a number of conversations distracting me, I will usually play my white / ambient noise at a much lower volume.
posted by dumbledore69 at 11:50 AM on October 30, 2009

« Older Critical Thinker   |   What are the best, almost scientific, alternative... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.