Can You Please Lower Your Voice?
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|May/June 2021
The experience of auditory sensitivity
By Lori Samlin Miller

James Kirk* remembers what it was like to be sensitive to sounds in elementary school. “Loud noises were probably the worst for me,” he says. “The other kids laughed when I crawled under my desk during a fire drill.” In addition to the problem in response to loud noises such as bells or sirens, he had difficulty paying attention to his teacher or focusing on schoolwork because he could not filter out the distractions in his classroom. “I picked up bits and pieces of what was being said, but I didn’t do so well back then because I was always looking around to locate the sources of the noises that no one else seemed aware of.”

This kind of sensitivity to noise and sound can be unrelated to a person’s ears or sense of hearing. Instead, it has to do with the way their brain perceives and interprets sounds.

I remember being mystified that no one else reacted to the sounds our squeaky pencils made on paper. The loudness felt like being poked, with no way to stop it.–James Kirk

Hijacked Attention

Now James is 19 and a freshman in college. What commanded James’s attention until he received help with his sound sensitivity? The occasional buzz and hum from the lights overhead that no one else seemed to hear. His fourth-grade teacher’s jangly bracelets that apparently did not derail anyone else’s train of thought. A student sharpening a pencil that took him off task each time it occurred. Even faint laughter, snatches of a conversation down the hall, or a door closing from another classroom interrupted his work. His hearing fell within the normal range, but at home, sounds from the TV, or a dripping faucet, or sirens from the street nine floors below hijacked his attention and robbed him of his ability to focus.

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