Occupational therapists recommend headphones for a variety of reasons. First, headphones can help block out irritating and even painful sounds. Listening to music or stories on headphones can be calming and help a child recover from sensory overload. Because most kids have electronic devices, headphones and earbuds are socially accepted and don't draw attention to your child. Used thoughtfully, they can prevent meltdowns, improve learning and decrease sensory overload.
Assess any auditory processing issues with the help of an occupational therapist. Some kids who have autism are sensitive to sudden, loud noises, such as a fire alarm or vacuum. Others are irritated by quiet sounds that most of us don't even hear, such as a water cooler or fan. Many children become frustrated in a group setting because they can't pick out individual voices or hear directions from a teacher. Knowing exactly how your child processes sound can help you determine when headphones would be helpful. (ref. 1, pg. 72-73)
Offer headphones or earbuds before entering a potentially challenging situation. For example, some children can't tolerate a crowded, noisy mall. Let your child wear headphones and listen to a favorite story or music as you go through the mall. The dentist's office is another challenging place for many children where headphones can help fend off a meltdown. (ref. 1, pg. 72-73; ref 2, pg. 170)
Identify times during the day when wearing headphones would be appropriate. Many children wear headphones at school, not to listen to music or to stories, but to muffle out extraneous sound. Children who have autism often wear headphones during times when they're expected to focus and work quietly, but are distracted by noise. (ref. 2, pg. 48)
Watch for signs that your child is becoming overloaded by noise. Create a cozy corner somewhere in your house that includes headphones, auditory stories, music and soothing toys. Let your child go to this place to decompress. Suggest this idea to your child's teacher, as well. (ref. 2, pg. 13)
Let your child help pick earbuds or headphones and make sure they're the right size.
Wearing headphones continuously can cause increased sensitivity to noise or even hearing loss, according to Ellen Notbohm, co-author of "1001 Great Ideas for Teaching & Raising Children with Autism or Asperger's." Talk with an occupational therapist before using headphones and use them no more than half your child's waking hours. (ref. 2, pg. 35)