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Headphones vs Earmuffs

By G. Johnson, published in AutisticWorld.com

 (11 January 2019)

 What are Noise Cancelling Headphones?

 Sound is a vibration that moves through the air and produces a frequency. Noise cancelling headphones are high-end earmuffs that cancel out that frequency by producing an opposite frequency. As the ambient sound hits the headphones a small microphone inside the earmuffs measures the incoming sound and produces an exact opposite waveform, which cancels out the original sound.

 The exact amount of noise that this type of headphone can cancel is advertised in decibels, and must also tell the end-user the frequencies it can cancel.

 Knowing What You Want When Buying Headphones

Many specialists say noise-cancelling headphones are the best kind of headphone to purchase when dealing with children’s sensory issues. However, I only recommend this type of headphone in extreme cases of autism. Even then, you will have to monitor the child as they will be completely isolated from their audible surroundings and can be dangerous.

 Some noise-cancelling headphones will come with very low reduced NRR, like 22. Even then, some sounds are cut out completely which is not safe for someone on the spectrum. Blocking out some noise completely is fine if that’s your goal. However, I feel that all sound should come through at a much-reduced level. The reason being is that you want your child to be aware of his or her surroundings at all times. It’s important for your child to hear you, or other things that might cause danger, or even worse, bodily harm if sound is completely blocked out.

 There are some headphones that will cancel out sound and even play music or a radio station. This can cause even more distraction from the child’s immediate surroundings. We never bought into this type of headphone not only because of the extreme danger the child might be put in but also because we didn’t want our child to have more isolation in his autistic world. We feel it’s important for the child to get outside his or her inner autistic world as much as possible.

 If noise cancellation is a must, shop wisely. When shopping for your headphones look for levels of decibel cancellation. Here is some reference on the loudness of decibels. Busy traffic, or about 70db’s is when most people begin to get disturbed by noise. But noise levels with some autistic children is enhanced and can seem louder, keep this mind when leaving the house on an outing. A motorcycle produces about 90db, an airplane taking off about 100db. 100 decibels is about 8x as loud as 70db. A conversation between a couple people is around 50 decibels or one fourth as loud as 70 decibels.

 The Crutch

 When using headphones of any type, it becomes a crutch. Over time the child will depend on this item and even use it as an escape in general. Escaping from noise is completely different than throwing a fit because they need the item to escape into a world of autistic ‘stimming’.

 In time, the goal is to get the child to acclimate to sound disturbances on their own without the crutch. There’s going to be times where some children absolutely need the earmuffs, like a concert, airport or traveling on an airplane. It’s preferable to have your child avoid the use of the headphones in places where they can manage sounds on their own, like shopping or when a small group of people are talking. In some severe cases, you may never reach that goal, trial and error will measure your outcomes.

 Where to Use Earmuffs

 Kids on the spectrum seem to love to watch certain sporting events on TV. You might want to take them to a local game sometime and have the headphones handy. Maybe try to work up to a pro game, but be prepared to leave if it gets to be too much even with the headphones. The roar of the crowd can be extremely exciting, or extremely disturbing. This can either be a real treat or a real bummer for the child, so be prepared to at least have an iPad handy.

 Here’s a list of other places to consider using headphones:

  • Restaurants
  • Shopping
  • Birthdays
  • Gatherings
  • Parks
  • Airport
  • Near Traffic areas
  • Swimming pools
  • Outdoor events (concerts, fairs, expos, holiday gatherings, etc..)

 People not on the spectrum should also take care of their hearing when being subject to loud noise over long periods of time. Hearing loss affects millions of older adults as they age.

 Earmuff Features to Consider

 When shopping for your headphones or earmuffs you’ll probably prefer a few things. Here’s a short list of considerations:

  •  Ear Cup Adjustable Extension

Everyone needs this option. You’d be amazed at how many headphones and earmuffs to not have this feature. It’s simply the ability to pull the headphones down to the ear level and location on your cranium.

I have a big skull, I can’t tell you how often I’ve had headphones that were extended all the way, but still didn’t fit right. There’s nothing worse than having your ears pinned against your head because they don’t fit properly into the ear cups.

You don’t want the ears outside of the ear cup. The ears should fit comfortably inside the ear cups making a perfect seal around the ear. This will give much more comfort for long term wear.

Find a pair that had an ear cup extension that is not at its full extension when you wear them. They should have a little extra room to go even further down past your child’s ears.

  •  Ear Cup Rotation

This one isn’t high on the priority list for me. Ear cup rotation basically helps the earphones fit better to your head. Nobody’s head is exactly the same, so this is a high-end comfort feature. The cups simply pivot on the ear.

I have found that when purchasing headphones with ear cup rotation you have to have more clamping force on the skull to keep them in place, which isn’t always comfortable. I also end up adjusting the headphone more frequently. Plus, most people will adjust the entire headphone from the location of the headband when they start to feel a bit uncomfortable.

There are probably some nice high-end headphones with rotating ear cups that are considered a very nice feature, I just don’t consider this option worth the extra expense. If you don’t have to pay much for this feature it’s good, because the headband will warp less because the ear cups will be brought together after use.

  •  Ear Cup Size/Depth

Many headphones or earmuffs come with cups that are either too small or too shallow, both are annoying problems.

Pads should not be on your ear, rather around your ear. The ear should be comfortably seated inside the padding. The padding should be around the ear.

If the depth is too shallow the inner ear can press against the padding inside the cup causing irritation. The last thing you need is your child to feel uncomfortable from irritation when they’re trying to attain comfort from sound.

In the era cup and depth venue, bigger is always better.

  •  Clamping Pressure

Clamping pressure is just what it sounds like, it’s how tight they fit on your head. You don’t want your child to feel like their head is stuck in a vice. On the other hand, you don’t want them falling off their head as soon as they turn to look at you.

Long term comfort is what we’re looking for. If the temples feel squeezed, or the ear pads feel useless after a while from the pressure, someone’s not going to be happy.

Like anything you get that’s new, there’s going to be a little bit of a break-in period where the product will have to adjust naturally to the cranium. So, expect a little season of adjustment to take place.

  •  Cushioning

This is the padding around the ear cup. More cushioning is usually the sought after feature in most headphones. Most of the time this is some sort of memory foam. The quality of the padding is also a consideration.

The band on top of the head should also be wide. Padding isn’t so much of an issue here as is the width of the fabric. Wider will give more comfort, too wide will cause a sweaty head.

Fabric on the ear cup is also something to think about. If your child has a real problem with certain types of clothing on them, this will be a priority on ear cup fabric. Most have some sort of nylon mesh, polyester fabric, leather or leather type of product.

  •  Weight

The lighter the weight, the better the comfort. There are some ridiculously heavy headphones out there. Headphones should never be that bulky unless you’re a recording engineer and need some sort of high-end magnets in your ear cup speakers.

The type of headphone you’re buying will normally be speakerless, so typically weight won’t be an issue.

  •  NRR or Noise Reduction

The Noise reduction amount in decibels should be no lower than 25 NRR, and no higher than around 40. The NRR reduces the noise greatly but still allows some sound to come in. This means, if you were hearing noise levels of around 80 decibels and the NRR value is 26, the noise would be reduced to 80db – 26db = 54 decibels.

 Best Headphones for an Autistic Child

 If your child can use earmuffs, that will be your best option. An earmuff will allow sound in, but block a majority of the sound with insulation. Even in extreme autism, we would not want our child to use noise cancelling headphones.

 Price Ranges

 This can get out of hand, honestly. In my opinion, simple but sturdy is all you need. With that in mind, you can get away with shopping for quality and still not dent your checkbook much. Also, if you need noise cancelling headphones you’ll need to shop on the internet. I’m so against them with children on the spectrum that we do not list them here.

 You can get a very high quality pair of earmuffs for an affordable price. We’ve done some shopping on this topic to save you the hassle of getting a poor quality pair that won’t last. These are earmuffs that are not only affordable, they’re durable, comfortable, and very effective and meet the standards from this post. 

 Weaning off of Earmuffs

 In the beginning, it might be hard to not use them. When they’re younger they seem to be more sensitive. Some kids will grow out of using them if you help them by not enabling them.

 Just try not to use them for every little silly thing. If they insist and go into the meltdown zone, then they may not be ready for a while. For the big, loud events always use them, heck use them yourself. In time, you may see some amazing results.