“Hi, is that your son? The one with the orange earplugs?”
I don’t even have to look to know that she’s talking about my kid. Earplugs are a standard part of his attire, especially here, at an echoing indoor soccer field filled with special needs athletes and their aides and coaches.
The other mom gestures towards our kids who are gathering at the center of the field for their closing circle. “Sorry, but my son seems to be pretty fascinated by your son’s earplugs.”
Her child sits as close as he can to mine, ignoring the coaches and instead staring intently at the side of my kid’s head.
My son gets his fair share of notice due to his earplugs. For awhile, the only foam earplugs we could find came in fluorescent orange or some other obnoxious color—to, what, demonstrate quickly to the foreman that we are following the safety protocols? Not such a great choice when trying to subtly integrate a sound-sensitive kid. Whenever I find the rare beige-colored ones, I buy in bulk.
When my son was six years old, he suddenly developed an unexpected aversion to the playground. At school, he refused to go outside at recess, which was odd for a kid who loves to run and climb and swing. After some investigation we determined that it was the noise level—the chaotic unpredictability of his classmates’ loud voices.
His teachers and I eventually coaxed him back outside, with the help of extra snacks and a social-story-poem complete with sound effects of playground noises on PowerPoint slides. (Yeah, somehow I had more time back then).
But from that point on, his sensitivity to noise became more apparent. My boy began covering his ears at any loud or unanticipated noise—but especially others’ voices. So much so that he was having trouble doing things because his fingers were busy plugging his ears.
Our life became a game of treacherous navigation. I learned to anticipate the sounds that would most aggravate him so I could give him fair warning if the culprit could not be avoided or, when possible, steer him clear of the worst offenders entirely.
- At home, the vacuum, hair dryer and ice dispenser had to be used strategically and only with prior authorization. My routine for making a morning smoothie involved placing all ingredients in the Vitamix and then carrying the machine to the farthest end of the house, behind two closed doors, before turning it on.
- We doctored the speakers on his toys with felt or cotton balls and duct tape—why do they make them SO loud, and with no volume control?
- He resisted people speaking too loudly, or talking over each other. Those who cleared their throats, coughed, or sneezed garnered no sympathy. Teaching him to say, “Bless you” instead of “NOOO!” is still an ongoing challenge.
- In the public restroom, the looming threat of an automatically flushing toilet—and the unpredictable ones in the next stalls that could strike at any moment—combined with those menacing air hand dryers to make a pee-stop a stressful experience.
- At school, the raucous cafeteria demanded daily ear protection. And forget third-grade music class. Twenty-five kids playing recorders? Just no. He skipped that entire unit.
Our photo albums show the gradual transition from occasional moments of hands-over-ears to the more regular appearance of headphones or earplugs. Now noise reduction is just a normal part of his daily routine—on school mornings, we head out the door donning socks and shoes, backpack…and last, but never least, earplugs. He knows the various places his earplugs are stashed (backpack, bedroom, living room drawer, my purse, the car) and he chooses to wear them when he anticipates too much noise.
Early on, I worried that he would grow too accustomed to hearing the world through earplugs and would never be able to cope with it un-muffled. I also dreaded the stares and odd questions that wearing ear protection invariably provokes. Kids always ask what’s in his ears. Adults usually just make their own assumptions—like the friendly guy who asked him how he did at target shooting.
I’m wondering what this kid at soccer practice must be thinking about my son’s ears, but I’m used to the questions by now. Just as I begin to tell his mother not to worry, her kid reaches out and snatches the earplug out of my son’s right ear. His mother and I both gasp as—in the next beat—her kid decides to see how a sweaty orange foam earplug tastes.
I really didn’t see that one coming.
This is life with “sensory” kids!
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