Sound and hearing are vital aspects of being human, learning and functioning optimally in the world. If our ability to hear is hampered, the effects are widespread. A weakened auditory system may result in auditory sequential processing problems. This affects short-term memory – the important ability to link pieces of auditory information. Auditory processing can also lead to difficulties focusing listening – another symptom of auditory dysfunction. These weaknesses negatively affect communication, language learning and attention skills. It seems reasonable, in the light of this, to ensure that your child is ‘sound safe’.
There are two primary forms of hearing and listening impairment. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) occurs when protracted loud sounds damage the inner ear. The delicate cilia hair cells in the inner ear are destroyed and cannot be repaired.
In addition, stress can interfere with the way we absorb sound. This is called Stress-induced auditory dysfunction (SIAD). An expert in auditory impairment claims that “Poor listening can begin at any age and for any number of reasons. “It might result from a health problem, an accident, a major lifestyle disruption or from stress.”
Hearing loss, be it noise or stress induced, with the addition of auditory dysfunction, can result in muddled thinking and out-of-balance emotions. For this reason, we need to become more sound aware. Sound can be healing, comforting and an aid to learning. In the form of noise, it can also disturb us and negatively affect our functioning. We need to help our children take precautions to protect their ears.
The word noise comes from the Latin nausea meaning seasickness. Noise generally refers to any loud, unmusical or disagreeable sound. Your classification of noise will, of course, depend on your subjective opinion. What you call loud and noisy may reflect your audiological health and personal taste. What I call unmusical and disagreeable depends entirely on my taste in music; one person’s noise is another’s delight.
Nevertheless, noise damages ears. Acoustic trauma happens when an extremely loud sound strikes in an instant. One blast from an explosion can rip apart the ears’ inner tissues, leaving scars that cause permanent damage. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) develops more insidiously over a period of time. Repeated or extended exposure to dangerous noise levels attacks the delicate sensory cells in the ear. Their function is to transport airborne vibrations from the inner ear to the brain. Without them, hearing is inefficient. In addition, loud sounds cause constriction of blood vessels in the cochlea, which is the hearing organ in the inner ear. A lack of a proper blood supply may result in damaging changes in the inner ear.
For these reasons, workplaces try to protect workers from hazardous noise levels, but what is being done to protect children?
In human adults, 80 dB is the maximum sound intensity that will not produce hearing loss. Above 85 dB, you run a risk of damage which worsens with length of exposure and higher dB levels.
Here is a table showing the decibel levels of common noises:
Watch ticking – 20 decibels
Whisper – 30 decibels
Average conversation – 40 decibels
Dishwasher, microwave – 60 decibels
City traffic – 70 decibels
Noisy restaurant – 70 decibels
Vacuum cleaner – 80 decibels
Busy city pavement – 80 decibels
Then we move into danger zones:
Lawn mower – 90 decibels
Screaming child – 90 decibels
Power drill or chain saw – 100 decibels
Blow dryer – 100 decibels
Car hooter – 110 decibels
Noisy video arcade – 110 decibels
Rock concert – 100–130 decibels
Jet engine at 40 metres – 140 decibels
Jackhammer – 180 decibels
While we can cope with a certain amount of noise (if our auditory system is healthy), we should avoid prolonged exposure. The next table shows a 1984 standard of noise-level safety based on decibels and time-exposure levels. It was created for the workplace and the duration per day may be higher than what is truly healthy for your children’s ears.
90 decibels – not more than 8 hours
92 decibels – not more than 6 hours
100 decibels – not more than 2 hours
102 decibels – not more than 1.5 hours
115 decibels – not more than 0.25 or less hours
So how do you teach your children sound safety? You don’t want to be paranoid but neither do you want them to innocently damage their wonderful auditory systems. The result of damage is not always hearing loss; sometimes damage substitutes sounds for others and they are replaced with tinnitus, or ringing or buzzing sounds in the head. Hearing damage is not something to take lightly.
Here are some precautionary measures:
- Limit exposure to sounds over 85 decibels. If you have to be exposed for longer, wear ear protection. Ear plugs must be worn to really noisy events such as rock concerts or firework displays. Earplugs are made of foam, silicone or wax and are designed to reduce noise levels from between 20 to 30 dB. Cotton wool doesn’t effectively diminish excessive sound waves.
- When using headphones, do the following: Keep the volume down. If your child listens with headphones to music with a ten-digit volume wheel set at 4 or higher, hearing loss may result. Limit listening to one hour at a time and let the ears rest. Be very careful if using headphones when exercising.
- Give the ears a rest. Alternate quiet and noisy activities. Don’t go to a noisy party or club after a loud sports event.
Our ears don’t actually bleed after a blast of fireworks or a rock concert. That doesn’t mean that we have incurred self-inflicted damage. Our society is an increasingly noisy one. Sound pollution means that we have to teach our children to be aware of sound and to practice sound safety.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners take a keen interest in auditory functioning. If you would like to read more about our approach, visit our website www.ilt.co.za. We also have a list of practitioners around this country and others.
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 Joshua Leeds. 2001. The power of sound. Vermont: Healing Arts Press
Why does my child get carsick?
Road trips are great ways to explore and teach children about their country. Booking family holidays in faraway places is exciting, especially for inland families who look forward all year to joining the exodus to the sea. But these trips become a nightmare if one of the family is prone to carsickness. In some cases, even a drive to the supermarket is something to avoid. Why do some children suffer from this unpleasant condition? Is it just a passing phase or could it be a sign of something else?
To answer these questions, we need to understand what causes the nausea that characterises carsickness and, of course, seasickness too. It’s all due to our senses and the fact that the human brain needs input from the sense organs to accurately perceive the world. Most of our ability to function in the world relies on being able to interpret the messages coming in from our senses. We are at a distinct disadvantage if our vision, hearing, sense of touch, smell and other sensory organs are faulty, or if our brains are not able to make sense of the messages reaching it from the sensory receptors.
There are, however, more than five senses. Our sense of balance and movement is vital to being able to operate efficiently in the world. The receptor for these senses is located in the inner ear and known as the vestibular system.
We don’t use different senses in isolation. Being able to make accurate perceptions about everything in the world needs cooperation among the senses. For example, although the vestibular system is able to tell the brain that the head (and of course, the body with it) is moving forward, it uses vision or tactile (touch) information to help confirm how and where the head and body are moving.
This knowledge has led to a theory that has not yet been criticised. It concerns sensory conflict and explains motion sickness as a conflict between the sensory messages coming in from the visual and vestibular systems (and possibly other so called graviceptors of the abdomen) about movements of the head. The symptom of nausea is produced by an incongruity between the messages relayed by the sensors of orientation (position) and those of movement. For example, the visual system of a child sitting in the back seat of a car or a sailor below the deck of a ship detects no movement. On the other hand, the vestibular system detects movement. So the brain isn’t able to confirm the acceleration and small shifts in movement detected by the vestibular system and those indicated by vision. This results in what is caused a lack of coherence between sensory information.
Following conflict in sensory information, central nervous system activity produces successive stages of motion sickness, from drowsiness to nausea.
In the case of children under the age of 8-10 years, the nausea may be as a result of the vestibular system being still underdeveloped. Although this system is one of the earliest to develop in humans, it continues to develop through early childhood. For this reason, we don’t need to be too concerned about the possible implications of motion sickness in young children.
If motion sickness continues past early childhood it may signify irregular functioning of the vestibular system (providing there are no visual problems, of course). This is why carsickness is fairly common in children with learning problems. The vestibular system is very often implicated in failure to thrive at school. If vestibular weakness is suspected, there are ways of restoring and improving function.
In the meantime, what to do about the travel sickness? Vestibular-enhancing medications are available, which are effective in combatting the symptoms. We also know that reading in a car or on winding roads or when the driver brakes suddenly is not advisable. Rather have the child focus on the distant landscape so the visual system has the same reference as the vestibular system. This is why sitting in the front seat is often helpful. When on a boat, make sure the child stays above deck, looking at the horizon. This will ensure that the visual system sees the movement of the horizon which will create the exact same reference as the vestibular system. Even better, when standing on the deck, make active movements to remain stable, because these motor commands will add their messages to the other sensory information. When riding in a car, making small movements to coincide with the movement of the car around corners, passing other cars, and so on, will also be helpful.
Hopefully, your child will outgrow car sickness but if not, do consider whether the functioning of his or her balance system might be contributing to the problem. History tells us that Admiral Nelson was seasick when at sea for his entire life. I can’t help but wonder about his vestibular system!
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) understands the significance of vestibular functioning for successful learning. If you would like to know more about this approach, visit our website at www.ilt.co.za. We have practitioners listed around this country and others who are able to help you and we offer training to parents, teachers and other professionals to learn more about aspects of our approach.
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 Alain Berthoz. 2000. The brain’s sense of movement. Harvard Press.
You may wonder why your child is prone to anxiety. Why she so often resorts to tears, fears and avoidance behaviours. While there are many possible reasons for this, it is sometimes useful to consider the actual development of the brain and how this may contribute to becoming an anxious person.
A principle of brain development that was described by the neurologist John MacLean, demonstrates that the brain develops from the bottom to the top and from inside out. The more primitive systems, being the brainstem, pons and medulla, develop first. This makes sense because they are our survival systems, controlling unconscious functions like heartbeat, breathing and so on. The systems regulating our emotions (the limbic, thalamus, hypothalamus and so on) develop next. Finally, the cortical systems that act as an executive control centre including decision making, problem solving, attending, controlling impulses and more, complete development at about the age of 25 years. These are the ‘smart’ brain systems.
Brain scans and imaging have shown how the primitive brain systems take over higher systems in situations of danger or threat. This is due to the natural need to enhance our survival and explains why when faced with a threatening situation, we cannot think clearly or act rationally. Oxygen supply to higher brain systems is reduced so that more oxygen can be directed to muscles and other body parts required to protect ourselves by fighting or running away. When in imminent danger, we don’t need to stop to problem solve – we need to react instinctively to survive. This summarises the stress responses of fight or flight and is a useful mechanism when really needed.
The downside is that if the stress response is activated too much or too intensely at a very early age (within the first twelve months from birth), the development of neural pathways to the brain’s frontal systems becomes compromised.
The reasons for this are threefold. First, the primitive systems are activated very strongly and stronger wiring in the survival brain systems results in weaker wiring in the higher level ‘smarter’ brain systems. This results in the development of the ‘anxious brain’. Secondly, chemicals are produced that are linked to the primitive brain structures. These chemicals (adrenalin, cortisol and others) are geared towards enhancing primitive survival and inhibit chemicals such as serotonin, which is geared towards smart brain development. Thirdly, ongoing electrical activity (firing between neurons) in the primitive systems strengthen the neural connections so a viscous cycle results – with primitive brain areas being gradually more and more in control with less ability to use the higher level smart brain systems.
This is why a well developing brain needs a safe, enriched environment to develop. Secure, enriched environments downregulate the overactivation of primitive systems that result in an anxious brain developing. If the child’s environment is compromised, it constantly activates threat or risk of not surviving, leading to the protective behaviours that are seen in stress responses. It is simply devastating for healthy neural development. Remember too that it isn’t only an emotionally unsafe environment that can predispose a child to becoming anxious. Physically illnesses also convey a sense of dis-ease and insecurity so even in the most loving and attentive families, a child prone to illnesses may be at risk for developing an anxious brain.
In order to help, what is needed is a bottom-up approach. It doesn’t help to ‘talk’ a child out of being anxious. Remember that the higher brain systems aren’t functioning efficiently. You are not going to want to discuss philosophical matters while a snarling dog is rushing towards you. The child has to be helped to feel safe both physically (including health) and emotionally.
Some of the basic needs that should be met in order to promote development and wellness are:
- The need for control (having our survival needs met, such as being fed when hungry, comforted when distressed) and understanding the situation. The latter refers to a child needing help to appraise a situation and to understand why she feels as she does)
- The need for attachment (closeness of the primary caregiver; trust)
- The need for distress avoidance and pleasure maximization. (We are all motivated towards pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant or painful ones. This includes physical, psychological, emotional or social states, which we automatically evaluate as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.) A child needs more ‘good’ experiences than ‘bad’ in order to develop optimally.
- The need for self-esteem enhancement and self-esteem protection. A child needs to evaluate her or his worth as a person as valuable and worthy. Positive feedback from others and unconditional love are important to developing a healthy self-esteem.
Fortunately, we know that the brain is plastic and can be changed. Neural connections can be established or weakened so by contributing to the child’s sense of security, her brain can reorganize the neural networks and begin to shift the firing of primitive systems to those of the higher level systems.
Stress is a major factor in children with learning difficulties, which is why Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners address signs of stress in our clients. For more information about ILT, visit our website www.ilt.co.za. We also list practitioners around the country and elsewhere if you are looking for help.
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