Theme ‘sound’

‘Sound’ is a theme of the chapters ‘architectural spaces’ and ‘interior design’. (See The recommendations.)

Sound is the most important theme on this website, if the number of recommendations is taken as an indication: in about 9% of all recommendations it’s the main subject, while in another 13% it’s a sideshow.

Although more research is needed, auditory abnormalities are a common feature of autism. Some estimate all people on the spectrum have them. Recent Chinese research distinguishes auditory under-sensitivity which occurred in 69% of the children in their rather large sample of autistic Chinese children and over-sensitivity in 49%. Furthermore fear for certain sounds such as high-pitch voices in 35%) and a peculiar interest in certain sounds such as that produced by shaking a box or a bottle in 37%.

No wonder the auditory sense is often considered as the most problematic sense. This opinion is strongly illustrated by the outcome of a poll by Marga Mostafa among parents and teachers of autistic children. They were asked to indicate which of six environmental factors they found the most important for influence on their autistic children and pupils: acoustics, visual (colors and patterns), visual (lighting), texture, olfactory and spatial sequencing. Seventy-nine percent of the parents  and 64% of the teachers ranked acoustics first. ‘Spatial sequencing’ (zoning) came second with 20 and 14% respectively.

Magda Mostafa is one of the very few who conducted an experiment in which the effect of sound-measures on autistic children was tested. On the one hand her results are highly relevant, on the other we have to wait until her findings are confirmed in other research with larger groups, since hers were rather small. (Also see ‘Mostafa’s unique experiment.)
The floors, walls and ceiling of the speech therapy room were made soundproof and treated in a way that incoming sound was diminished to a certain number of decibels and the reverberation was demonstrably reduced. In comparison to all noise in this school / treatment facility this was only a small intervention; the results were nevertheless impressive. Mean response time improved with a factor of 3,6. ‘Behavioral temperament’ (self-stimulatory behavior) over a fixed time period was reduced with a factor of 2,8. In this last case we are dealing with an autistic core-symptom involving obsessive behavior, specific for each child, including head-banging, biting the hand and rocking.

Another argument in favor of the importance of noise, is that certain autistic behavior can be stimulated or strengthened by responses to it. Someone with autism who actively responds to sensory oversensitivity often does this through ritualistic, rule-bound behavior – part of one of the core features of autism – in which as many as possible known stimuli and as few as possible unknown ones are admitted.
Temple Grandin gave an example of this when she recounted: “I discovered that I could shut out painful sounds by engaging in rhythmic stereotypical autistic behavior.”
This means a straight line can be drawn from noise to an autistic core symptom.

Finally, it’s good to realize that sound experiences can be very selective. A staff-member of the Dr. Leo Kannerhuis relates, for example, a conversation with someone with a strong hypersensitivity for noise. During it, she realized she had been playing with a piece of crackling cellophane. She apologized which, her interlocutor brushed aside: he hadn’t noticed.

Noise in schools is a very serious problem which is treated here, along with reverberation / acoustics.


Chinese research

Tan et al, ‘Auditory abnormalities in children with autism’, In: Open Journal of Psychiatry, 2012, 2, 33-37. PDF The only small doubt these results may in part be typically Chinese stems from the fact that Chinese is a tone-language so that most of the population has perfect pitch, which may in general raise sensitivity at least to speech.
Marga Mostafa
Mostafa, Magda, ‘An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of design intervention for the autistic user’, In: Archnet-IJAR, International Journal of Architectural Research 2(2008) 1 (March) 189-211. This is part of the ‘core literature‘.
Temple Grandin
Grandin, Temple, My experiences with visual thinking, sensory problems and communication difficulties, 1996