Sensitivity to sound - hyperacusis
auditory sensory processing disorder (ASPD)

Hyperacusis is an extreme sensitivity to sounds, now called auditory sensory processing disorder (ASPD). When Network members were told that scientists admit themselves puzzled by the increase in hyperacusis and were asked for their experience and opinions, it really struck a chord. Here are their reports:

  • "Our son was definitely much more sensitive to noise pre-diet. He often complained that I was yelling at him, when I wasn't. He didn't cope well with the food processor, electric mixer, etc, and found sudden, especially unexpected, loud noises extremely distressing. Unfortunately I have no idea which particular chemical was the cause.

  • "Our son was incredibly sensitive to sounds (screamed about loud noises, and noticed sounds we could barely detect) before diet, and this reduced dramatically on failsafe. But I couldn't say what caused the reaction. I had always associated it with Asperger's - I didn't realise it's so common amongst food intolerant people. Sound (and touch) sensitivity is a common characteristic of autism; considering how many autistic and Asperger's kids turn out to be food intolerant, I guess it is not surprising that they have hyperacusis.

  • "Hyperacusis? Absolutely. When my son was a baby he would become acutely distressed at loud noises, especially at the upper end of the spectrum. I had to stop visiting a friend because her little girl would squeal with delight, and he would become hysterical - crying inconsolably for a long time. Later as a toddler he would cringe, cry, and cover his ears if a noise was too loud or high pitched. To my hearing, his level of sensitivity was well above normal, he would react to what were for me quite normal sounds.

  • "Now he is well on-diet he does not have this reaction. And his reaction to noise seems to have changed over the years. Around 4 or 5 years old, he seemed to grow out of the hypersensitivity to sound, to become muffled. If he is reacting he uses a loud voice, is hard of hearing, hears indistinctly, and his speech mis-pronunciations become more pronounced.

  • "Yes, I have always been very sensitive to sound. As a teenager I could hear electrical whines and whistles when others couldn't (probably high frequency) and I remember finding many things painful to hear, in particular putting the cutlery away in the cutlery drawer is acutely painful. I have noticed an improvement on failsafe and agree that it is probably related to sals. I also find that I am intolerant of noise when reacting to amines, probably because of associated headaches and pain that I get in reaction. My partner, children and I all find noisy situations overstimulating or overwhelming and we tend to want to withdraw or we get cranky, even on Failsafe this persists, but we can last longer than we used to.
  • "I have always been able to hear the security systems at the doors of department stores... it was painful to stand too close to the doorway. I've only ever known one other person who could hear it though. Very high pitched. I can't stand high pitched noises... but I don't react to sals. I do, however, get more sensitive when I have amines.. but then, I'm cranky as all getout and everything makes me snarl then... so I couldn't say if I'm more sensitive or simply more irritated.
  • "We all (4) seem to suffer this. My kids (7 and 3 yo) particularly get quite upset in noisy music concerts, etc. However, I haven't noticed any correlation with sals at all. Husband and 7yo both do not react to sals ; but 3yo and I seem to be extremely sensitive. I didn't notice anything during the challenge, just that the kids seemed more silly and noisy.
  • "All three of my children were very sensitive to noise when they were younger and all have sals sensitivity. The youngest who is now 5 is still fairly sensitive and finds noise and chaos hard to function in. The two boys are both ADD so that makes it harder to be focused in noise as well.
  • "Having just failed a sals challenge, and 5-6 days on still suffering behaviourally, my six year old today said "please don't speak in that voice mum" and then when we had to go to the supermarket he started crying saying that "it would be too loud in there".
  • "I used to be very sensitive to noise when I got migraines, but this past year, I have had days in a row when I am sensitive to noise even when I don't have a migraine. Particularly people's voices who are close in proximity to me. When my husband reads a bedtime story to my son at night and I am sitting nearby, it sounds like he is shouting and I have to tell him to talk quieter. However, since I started the elimination diet almost 4 weeks ago I haven't had this happen, it's been wonderful!
  • "The reason I tried the failsafe diet was because of hyperacusis and tinnitus… I happened to mention to my GP that strangely my ears hurt and rang more when I ate fruit by itself. He suggested that the salicylates in food may be causing my continuing reactions. I tried the diet and it has helped my ears enormously. Before the diet I had to wear earplugs outside the house as noises hurt my ears so much.
  • "My 5 yr old has every now and again gone to pieces crying about how everyone keeps yelling at her. Hearing tests have come to nothing. We haven't done elimination and challenges with her yet, but she does love to binge on strawberry, tomatoes and other "yummy" fruit and veg.
  • "Certainly happens for my children (although it doesn't seem to affect THEIR OWN noise). My eldest daughter went to music lessons when very young and we always had to sit in the other room during percussion. We also couldn't go to the movies unless we filled her ears with cotton wool to muffle the sound. It seems to have improved as we stay on the diet and worsens when I either get a bit slack, make a mistake or manufacturers change things without notice.
  • "I have been using a lot of apples, carrots, some pumpkin and firm pears with skin. The result is my children are loud and irritable, I find it painful to hear and my son especially is quite distressed at times, hubby is loud and crabby, same with me. So I am going to stop the challenge and go back to basics to see the result.
  • "We have been failsafe with our daughter for over 4 years as you know. Before diet she was very sensitive to loud noise which we always found strange because she talked loudly herself. We would often laugh afterwards saying that it was a wonder the sound of her own voice didn't annoy her. Since failsafe it doesn't seem anywhere near a problem.
  • When we went through all the marvellous recoveries the failsafe diet did for eliminating James' O.D.D. traits, his obvious hyper sensitivity to noise and sound also disappeared and this makes sense as he has always had a problem with salicylates. Now and again I've cheated a bit allowing in limited amounts of salicylates and just putting up with small bouts of bad behaviour that may result, sometimes coupled with a reintroduction of sound sensitivity.
  • Wow I always have a giggle when things like this come up, when we all start realising that us food sensitive people have these same issue. We have had the discussion so many times "there will probably be a lot of people there and it will be really noisy so I don't think it is worth us going". Whenever my son is around too much noise he literally flips out: he cant think, hear, speak properly and it is really painful for him - he says its like everyone is yelling at him. This year since we have his diet down pat he seems to cope really well - I sat and watched him in assembly at school 3 weeks ago and had tears in my eyes!! He was able to sit and listen the whole hour.

Here is a recent thread from facebook on the same topic:

[1249] Sensitivity to sound (hyperacusis and ASPD) and diet – facebook thread (October 2013)

Thats it! I'm convinced!....For the past 11 months my children have not been able to eat in the same room, let alone next to each other at the table without some kind of temper tantrum explosion, because my youngest (miss 8) has what I can only describe as some kind of anxiety attack over the noise her sister (miss 10) makes when eating anything. A couple of months ago my mum saw Sue Dengate on the TV talking about salicylates and how they can affect children and when she showed me all I kept thinking was...."That's her...that's what she's like." It wasn't only the eating thing but any tantrum she threw was extreme. Only at home though, my parents and husband were the only ones to see the full extent of it for a very long time. I looked into the failsafe diet and had been experimenting with things until I received my failsafe book recently. I was cutting back or cutting out salicylates where I knew they were, and had good results. Keeping a food diary I was able to link explosive tantrums which lasted for days to foods that I hadn't considered for one reason or another. So I began being a little more strict with it, recently cutting out preservatives where I could as well, (we haven't done the strict elimination diet). A few days ago she had a massive melt down, followed by something that surprised me....she was unable to make a decision, just a simple one.....but as there was no logic in her head that told her how to do it, she looked at me blankly and said "I can't decide". She's a very bright girl so it was very surprising to see it, I think it was something I'd not noticed previously as it was hidden by tantrums when she couldn't decide something. Tonight, after not having preservatives and only having very little salicylates for about a week, she came to me and said "mum....Em was sitting this far away from me (showing me a few cm's with her fingers) and she was eating popcorn, and I didn’t even hear her!!!" She was so excited and proud of herself, and once she left the room I burst into tears of happiness. She's been amazingly accepting of this diet, I've not kept it secret from her, and I believe she understands how its helping her and all of us. Thank you Sue Dengate, you've changed our lives thanks also to my family for being so supportive - Kristy

The irritation to noise is called auditory sensory processing disorder (ASPD). We have also found that my son who suffered terribly from it can show no signs of it when managed with diet. It always creeps back whenever there is the smallest of slipups. Two days ago when he accidentally consumed corn he was an emotional wreck on the couch covering his ears crying and begging me to turn the vacuum cleaner off. Today his reaction was over. I vacuumed in the same room and he had no problem at all - Emma

Wow! I never considered that! My two year old is highly sensitive to noise and so is my 15wk old. Both my boys! We are already preservative, artificial colour and flavour, and chemical free. High sals are mostly out but realised we weren’t meant to be having avocado! Think it’s time to fine tune the sals! -Kristie

It's not always just salicylates. Gluten can be a major factor. I have had SPD my whole life. It is something I think you learn to cope with but it is so hard for kids to deal with. I somehow managed to graduate from the law school with honours. I pretty much spent the whole of my VCE and law degree studying in the state library in Melbourne (in the dome) where making any noise is strictly forbidden. The only way I could study without feeling the need to punch people out for making noise. The other thing to note is that lots of people don't understand SPD because often people who suffer from it (commonly kids with ADD or ADHD etc) can be quite noisy themselves. If the child is in control of the noise (making it themselves or choosing to listen to it, e.g music), they will cope just fine. It is noises they are not in control of (e.g music or clashing conversations by others) that they can't cope with. My one year old has sensory processing issues with touch not sound. He hates the feel of things touching his hands. When he starts to touch his food he acts as though his hands are burnt (like he's handling a hot potato). Some people have sensory processing issues with bright lights - Emma

Amines also, especially chocolate, for auditory processing disorder here - Adelie

My daughter has sensory/sound and OCD issues which are definitely magnified by eating a high salicylate diet. Great to you found it too and now know why she behaved that way - Jan

Thank you for your post. I thought this was not due to food but a part of the ASD, as our doctor & speech pathologist said! - Louisa

And briefly:

  • "My personal experience has been that too many salicylates and people seem to be shouting at me. It's quite painful.

  • "Yep..everything just gets too loud, and everything seems to build up as you are trying to hear what you should and block the rest..or something like that!

  • "Its like having a humming in my head, noise sounds like it is being put through a loud speaker only 1 cm from my ear drum and it makes me edgy and to the point of feeling like I have motion sickness - sounds dramatic I know.

  • "I was only asking my daughter yesterday why she says stop shouting at me but I don't consider that I have raised my voice much.

  • "Too much sulphites for me - everything is either too loud or too bright.

  • "My 9 year old and I are both sals sensitive and sensitive to noise. My daughter will cry or run away if she feels the noise level is above that which she can take (which is a lot less than most). I always attributed it to her ADHD.

  • "IS SO in this house!!!! as well as speaking several decibels higher when reacting.

  • "The child (4yo) that has responded the most obviously behaviour-wise to the diet is often complaining that I shout at her if I raise my voice, she will actually cover her ears and say that her ears or head hurts!

  • (Added July 2009) My daughter had always had a problem with loud noises; she would cover her ears and leave the room when the vacuum or blender was on or when people beep the horn when they leave, yet could speak very loudly herself. When we noticed that she had an allergic-type reaction and thus began investigating foods, it was apparent that this problem was only when she was reacting to something. Although I have not yet been able to pinpoint all culprits to get symptom-free, our very supportive doctor had the thought that perhaps her inner ear was being 'gummed up' causing the sound to reverberate rather than simply be detected. We went for a hearing test; her hearing is fine, but they could visually see that the actions of the eardrum were as if it were 'gummed up' inside. Although there was no actual proof, all indications are that our doctor's theory was correct: the problem with loud noises and especially low pitched ones is related to the body's production of mucus in reaction to some form of allergen (or similar). [Personally, with my ears 'gummed up' recently due to a head cold, I could see why she reacted to noise that way – all noises were very uncomfortable, let alone the loud ones.] – Tracy, by email.

One psychologist said "you would be surprised at how many people in the world are sensory defensive. It is a real problem that is not being addressed. In my work as a psychologist I come across it all the time, vision, hearing, taste, touch, proprioceptive, vestibular, smell. They are assailed all the time. Then you also have the sensory deprived. Once again the same senses, but they need heaps of input. Under researched, under defined, and under recognised".

Some references:

Cazals Y. Prog Neurobiol. 2000 Dec;62(6):583-631. Auditory sensori-neural alterations induced by salicylate. Early after the development of aspirin, almost 150 years ago, its auditory toxicity was associated with high doses … tinnitus, loss of absolute acoustic sensitivity and alterations of perceived sounds are the three auditory alterations described by human subjects after ingestion of large doses of salicylate.

Cazals Y, Horner KC, Huang ZW. J Neurophysiol. 1998 Oct;80(4):2113-20. Alterations in average spectrum of cochleoneural activity by long-term salicylate treatment in the guinea pig: a plausible index of tinnitus. Salicylate, one of the most widely used drugs, produces at repetitive high doses reversible tinnitus and hearing loss.

deBartolo H M Jr. Zinc and diet for tinnitus. Am Journal Otol 10(3) 256,1989

Shulman, A. Tinnitus: Diagnosis/Treatmen. Lea & Febiger, 1991

Derebery M J. Allergic management of Meniere's disease: an outcome study. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2000,122 (2): 174-82

Thanks to Adele, Annette, Bill, Brenda, Carlene, Carol, Catherine, Christina, Howard, Jan, Jen, Jenny, Joy, Julieanne, Khali, Melinda, Melissa, Nicole, Rosemary, Sandra, Sylvia and Tina for their contributions and to all those in the failsafe groups that discussed the topic.

Introduction to food intolerance

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians 

Last update February 2019