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Disturbances of the Senses

"I like swimming," as written by CharlieOnce upon a time we used to state in full confidence that "Charlie has no sensory issues." As a toddler, Charlie didn't seem particularly sensitive to sounds or to have "tactile defensiveness." It's only been as he's gotten older that he's shown more and more signs of sensory sensitivity and sensory dysfunction. More often than not, he seems to have his hands pressed on his ears (to help him filter sounds?). He definitely favors jackets and blankets made of polar fleece. If someone shakes his hand, he sniffs his palm. 

I was certainly interested to read about a study by University of British Columbus researchers about how tactile input affects what we humans hear:

English speakers use aspiration -- the tiny bursts of breath accompanying speech sounds -- to distinguish sounds such as "pa" and "ta" from unaspirated sounds such as "ba" and "da." Study participants heard eight repetitions of these four syllables while inaudible air puffs -- simulating aspiration -- were directed at the back of the hand or the neck.

When the subjects -- 66 men and women -- were asked to distinguish the syllables, it was found that syllables heard simultaneously with air puffs were more likely to be perceived as aspirated, causing the subjects to mishear "ba" as the aspirated "pa" and "da" as the aspirated "ta." The brain associated the air puffs felt on skin with aspirated syllables, interfering with perception of what was actually heard.

It is unlikely aspirations are felt on the skin, say the researchers. The phenomenon is more likely analogous to lip-reading where the brain's auditory cortex area activates when the eyes see lips move, signaling speech. From the brain's point of view, you are "hearing" with your eyes [my emphasis].

"Our study shows we can do the same with our skin, "hearing" a puff of air, regardless of whether it got to our brains through our ears or our skin," says Gick.

It's not only our ears that are involved in interpreting what gets said, but our eyes. Though the researchers discount that we can feel the air puffs caused by human speech, it's an intriguing thought, especially in light of the sensory disturbances, even scrambling, that Charlie seems to experience; of his difficulties in regulating sensory input and in communicating when he's had too much.

Some sort of sensory over-disturbance may be, Jim and I think, why--on Wednesday morning, after a pleasant ride to school---just as we turned onto the main street leading to the big autism center, Charlie banged the back of his head on his seat and went, for lack of a better expression, berserk, crying out, thrashing around, moaning and then, as we pulled into the bus line and stopped the car, sobbing with his head down. We sat quietly with him in the car. While he was still upset when an aide appeared and walked him in, Charlie had a decent day at school.

Jim and I divined the culprit to be a certain soul music CD that Charlie had repeatedly been requesting for several days. 

We've been working on having him listen to different CDs and for a day or two, Charlie had a nice little rotation going. Then, as tends to happen with him, many choices devolved into either one or two CDs, with Charlie insisting that these be turned as loud as we'd allow. Indeed, on Wednesday morning, he wanted the CD turned on really loud. Jim and I only turned the music up so far, but Charlie must have reached some kind of maximum threshold with the music, which was giving him not so much a buzz as, possibly?, a pain in the head, literally?

I stuck the CD deep into the depths of the CD case. When I picked up Charlie after school, he flipped around among all the CDs and then said "all done." I responded that, yes, we'd had to put away the soul CD. Charlie handed me the other CD he'd been asking for over and over and I told him that we'd listened to it plenty. He found another one and I skipped around to three songs randomly, and he didn't object. On another ride later in the day, after hearing a few songs on two of the same CDs, I told Charlie that he had to find a different one. He kept flipping through the CD case and giving me the same two over and over and, when I requested that he find a different one, he zipped the case shut. 

We'd like to work on Charlie choosing a broad array of CDs. Maybe we can alternate him choosing and us choosing, and only listen to a few songs on each, and shuffle the order, and throw in some radio music, too. I suspect we often are a little slow on the uptake to get Charlie to change some of his obsessive requests because he seems happy to have them fulfilled, until too many repetitions gets to him. Charlie, at this moment, is still figuring out how to regulate when sensory sensations go from pleasurable to painful and there's disturbance.

Certainly Charlie's always struggled, sometimes subtly, to coordinate his mind and body. This was first most apparent to us when Charlie was a non-toddling toddler trying to figure out how to walk; his big head and long legs and body didn't help. Indeed, thinking over the slow process of teaching Charlie to walk (Jim used to get Charlie to move his legs while hanging onto the stroller, which Jim would pull little but little away from Charlie until he was, to his laughing surprise, walking! and without holding on), the fact that Charlie's become so adept a bicycle rider seems like a more than minor miracle to me.

Something less of a miracle, but a very pleasant turn of events, has been seeing Charlie's willingness to write. Yesterday it occurred to me that he should write the date and day of the week everyday, so we did that (why does Wednesday have to be such a long word?). And then, because Charlie had gone swimming at school (though alas, only in the 4-foot wading pool), I wrote "I like swimming" and he wrote it, too (and did a particularly nice job on the word "swimming"). 

On reading Emily's post about homeschooling her son TH and having him say the answers to some questions rather than writing them out ("I think a great deal of his weariness with school has to do with the pain--literally--of writing. For assignments in which written composition is integral, he will usually be typing," as Emily wrote), I couldn't help but thinking how regulating--sensory input, mind and body coordination, mind and hand and language coordination---is a common theme in many of our children's learning, and how their attempts to manage all of these can be "literally" painful, physically, mentally, and otherwise.

And about how, by thinking and doing differently, there can be a little more understanding. And learning. And even, fun.


susan senator

We have often found that if we spell a word, out loud, to Nat, he will understand it better than just having it spoken to him. It's possible that spelling just clicks with him more than hearing whole words; it's also possible that spelling simply gives him more time to process. Tough to know.


What sort of music does Charlie listen to besides soul music and jazz? Have you tried Bach, which is very overly and helps concentration/ What about music backed with binaural beats and other "brain entrainment" modes that produce alpha or beta states? (These were extremely helpful in my recovery after a stroke two years ago.)

Does Charlie dance at all, or sing> Many many people with some form of brain-related .... well, I hesitate to call it "disability" in this forum, but it is experienced as a disability to those who have suffered some form of brain injury ...change of status find that they can sing statements when they suffer aphasia, or can dance across a room when other locomotion is impaired.

Does Charlie like marching bands, swing bands, ambient techno, or other forms of dance music?


Oops, I meant to say that Bach is orderly. Spellcheck isn't always one's friend, as you probably know from correcting students' papers.


I remember a certain trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., when our two boys were very young and our daughter had yet to be born.
The kids listened to two CDs during the entire four-day trip. One was the B-52s (I'm not sure which album, but Rock Lobster and Deadbeat Club were two of the songs we heard over and over and over and OVER). The other was Wee Sing Silly Songs in which at one point a group of children chanted, in unison, "We're on our way to London Town!"
After that trip the boys voluntarily retired those CDs. There was no discussion about it; they just didn't play them any more.
In effect, they'd had enough.
I suppose to a boy like Charley who gets passionately attached to certain objects/sounds/routines repetition so soothing that his tolerance for listening to the same music over and over goes way beyond that of so-called "normal" kids. If he's heard a song 100 times and nothing terrible has happened he has an illusion of safety and control. I'd love to know why, on hearing the song for the 101st time, it becomes intolerable.


Nik adores Mary Poppins and Signing Time (one song in particular)but he self-limits by shaking his head vigorously and voicing "no" as best he can. If I don't get the hint (or if I'm not right there to turn it off), his behavior devolves into thrashing, violent head banging.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if that;s what Charlie was trying to tell you. So glad you've figured it out and are working with (and around) it. :-)

Angela DeRossett

Kristina, I never thought about it until you just said the same thing about Charlie--hand sniffing! Xander does that too! Oh and last night he said to his siblings, "I am the best because I have awesome-ism". That's my boy... They are awesome, aren't they?

Kristina Chew

@Angela, that is the best-est neologism I've heard in a long time!

@Louise, I used to play Bach for Charlie on the piano and other Baroque composes (whom I myself like). But he's really not shown or expressed any inclination for classical music. Jim thinks he's a classic rock kind of guy......

Sara Sanders Gardner

We talked about this at a support group meeting last night. I just wish there was some research showing how much sensory issues get in the way of those of us on the autism spectrum. The article in Science Daily is a nice start anyway.


@Jill - I have done the exact same thing with new LPs and CDs - playing them incessantly over and over then putting them away, rarely picking them up again.

Of course, after several days of listening to the same music repeatedly, it gets burned in. You can play it in your brain whenever you want.

Club 166

Buddy Boy listens to one song on a CD all night long while he sleeps. He'll rotate the songs (and CD's) every now and then, but with rare exceptions, he insists on listening to just one tune all night long.

We keep a monitor in his room so we can hear him if he calls us (we have thick plaster walls), so we end up listening to one song all night long, too.


Rose I don't know why I thought of Charlie when this man talked about a 3:00 awakening for a student of his... Sound sensitivities.

When Ben was young, I remember when my mother or sister would talk to him, in their sweet soft voices he would scream and try to get away. I couldn't figure out why he was being so naughty. His speech teacher said he would hide behind the bookcase when she held "circle time". About the same time I heard of AIT. We tried it with Ben, and he lost his sensitivity. I wanted to know beforehand what his hearing was like, and he underwent an audiogram and hearing was 10x normal at 2000 hertz alone, the rest was pretty normal, but..the range of a high woman's voice was 2000 hertz, she said it wasn't that big a deal and a lot of kids were far more sensitive, but after AIT (hearing desensitization) he was better towards them, the speech teacher, immediately following for sure.

Maybe Charlie has a sensitivity to a certain sound range. I know if you are like me you are too tired of trying all the new s%$t and are just into acceptance. I don't blame you for not looking into it, but I wonder if there is a certain range he can't take.Ben still can't stand for me to sing, but my speaking voice is deeper.

Looking into freaking genetic testing for Ben. Joel is ticked I am doing it. "Why don't you just let him be a boy?? Doctors never help anything..." He doesn't know I'm ready to hand it all up, too, but this is my last hurrah.


Just thought...Tesla was said to have similar sound sensitivities, or so it was said in The Invention of Everything Else by S.Hunt.

Good company...

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