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Hearing: the eight senses: fact file

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Hearing: the eight senses: fact file

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The sense of hearing

The auditory sense, or the sense of hearing is one of the five better known senses.  Our sense of hearing picks up sounds, which are vibrations in the air. 

We use our sense of hearing all the time, for communication, for safety and awareness around roads, to listen to music, to know when the washing machine has stopped spinning… We’re always hearing, even when we’re not listening, or consciously tuning in to the sounds around us. 

Regulation of our senses is one aspect of our basic human needs.


Talking about hearing

Talking about hearing with toddlers and young children helps them to learn to communicate about the world around them. You can talk about the qualities of the sounds; whether it is loud, quiet, high pitched, or low pitched, booming or screeching, rattling. 

Additionally, talking about whether the sound is comfortable to hear, or not. Some people struggle with, or are averse to, certain noises. This may be loud, unexpected noises., high pitched noises, low pitched and volume background noises; everyone is different. Talking about sensory preferences with children helps to give them the vocabulary to express their auditory, or hearing, needs.

Hearing sensitivity and disorders

Hearing hypersensitivity

When we talk about hearing sensitivity there are several things going on. For example, the levels of sounds that people can detect. Some people can detect quieter sounds that others cannot hear. Some people can detect higher and lower pitched sounds than others can hear. These are known as auditory hypersensitivity, or hypersensitive hearing. 


Hearing hyposensitivity

Other people have a smaller range of sounds that they can detect.  Some people cannot hear at all, but can sense some sounds as vibrations in other parts of their body. This is known as deafness. Hearing loss or disorders my not result in total deafness, but can affect the volumes,  and pitches of sounds that they can detect, or the clarity of the sounds they hear. Hearing issues may be bilateral (in both ears) or unilateral (in one ear only). These are all forms of hearing hyposensitivity. Not all hyposensitivity is classed as a clinical issue. Even a group of people with ‘normal’ hearing will have a range of sensitivity and perception of sounds.


Auditory processing disorders

For some people their sense of hearing itself is not impaired, however their brain struggles to distinguish certain sounds from each other, for example, to pick out the voice of the person you are talking to in a busy restaurant. This is a form of auditory processing disorder (in the UK the diagnosis is usually Obscure Auditory Dysfunction). 


Hearing and regulation

Everyone also has a zone of regulation, a comfort zone for each sense. These are not always the same. For example, some days we may have a much bigger comfort zone and happily spend time in noisy areas, or in places with lots of background noise, On the other hand, on on other days even having the radio on in the background whilst someone is speaking to you may feel intolerable. 

Sensory seeking behaviours

People with hearing hyposensitivity may often crave stronger or louder sensory input. It can take higher levels of sensory input to get the auditory stimulation that people with higher levels of sensitivity get. This can mean they engage in sensory seeking hearing behaviours. 

This can include turning up the volume, or making noise seemingly for the sake of it. 


Sensory avoidant behaviours

People who are highly sensitive to sounds may be sensory avoidant. This may include being easily distracted by sounds that others ignore or don’t hear, avoiding noisy places, struggling when there are multiple conversations happening at once. They may have strong fear responses to sudden noises. Hypersensitive hearing can also encourage people to use a chosen sound to block out other noises, so, like sensory seeking individuals they may turn up the volume. However, this is because they are trying to mask other noises, not because they are seeking high levels of input. Increasing the volume of one noise is decreasing the range of sensory input. 


Using hearing

Having fun with hearing

There are lots of games and activities that involve hearing. 

If you’re trying these activities with a child, talk to them about their comfort levels. Is the music too quiet, or too loud? Adjust it to an acceptable level. Was a particular noise painful? Avoid that one in future. 

  • listening to music, stories, poems
  • singing and reciting rhymes or making music
  • clapping games
  • making animal noises
  • identifying the sounds you can hear: try it in different environments
  • passing whispers around a group to see how it changes in the process
  • musical chairs or bumps is another game that involves listening and hearing, or rather not hearing the music when it stops and responding as quickly as possible.
hearing and calming . A child asleep wearing headphones alpha music can help sleep

Hearing and calming

Hearing can also be used for calming, for example

  • listening to calming music or alpha music
  • using background noise such as white noise, or noise cancelling headphones to mask intermittent sounds and prevent distraction
  • listening to nature sounds, like running water, the wind, or bird song can be calming

How to use hearing for calming will depend on your sensory preferences. Some people find that having an even level of background noise helps to reduce distraction, so having the radio on can help. Others find listening to familiar music helps them to calm.  Both of these meet the human need for predictability. Being in control of the sensory experience often also impacts on how calming the hearing experience is. 

Think about when a child is playing with a toy that makes a noise. These toys quickly become frustrating for parents. However, the sound it makes is often less frustrating if you are the one pressing the button, You are controlling the noise, and know exactly when it is going to happen. On the other hand when a toddler has the toy the noises are less predictable. 

Calming sounds are usually predictable as well as within our sensory comfort zone.


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