Can Anechoic Chambers Help People with Autism?
Ongoing research is analysing whether anechoic chambers – dubbed the ‘quietest place on earth’ – can help people with autism. Anechoic chambers are special rooms that totally absorb sound and electromagnetic waves, leaving them completely silent.
The silent rooms are created by lining them with fibreglass wedges and covering the walls, floor and ceiling. Creating an uneven surface, the wedges protrude in different directions. This means there will not be any rebounding sound waves and any noise will be absorbed by the wedges.
When the sound waves hit the fibreglass, they transfer to the body of the wedge, which then dissipates the energy. Residual sounds will reflect off the wedge at an angle, land on another wedge and carry on being subject to the same process until they dissolve – so there will not be any echoes and the room becomes almost strangely quiet.
Historically, anechoic chambers have been used as ‘testing grounds’. When they were first introduced in America in the 1940s, they were utilised for acoustic testing, providing an almost completely noiseless environment in which to examine equipment.
Based in Minneapolis in the US, Orfield Laboratories has been researching anechoic chambers for the past decade as part of its studies into living conditions for elderly people and for people with sensitive, limited or augmented sensory considerations. The lab’s scientists have worked with The Autism Society of America and Autism Speaks and they have also researched Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to see how to improve the quality of life for people who have hypersensitivity.
People with autism are very sensitive to sound and it is being investigated how the anechoic chambers can help them. The aim of the research is to find a way of adapting buildings to adhere to the living conditions that people will prefer.
The anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories has the Guinness world record for the quietest place on earth and people visit from across the world to sit in it and relieve stress. Laboratory owner Steve Orfield said that spending time in the chamber could assist in the treatment of anxiety and stress and it could also help people who are living with autism by becoming a potential therapy. Spending time in the room has been described as a “healing sound bath” which “re-sets the brain”, according to Orfield. It can provide a stress-free, healing sanctuary for people who are sound-sensitive.
According to the Autism Research Institute, people with autism are often extremely sensitive to sound. A study by Bernard Rimland PhD in the late 1990s revealed sound sensitivity was prevalent in 40% of children on the autism spectrum. In some cases, it was so severe that concerned parents had contacted the Institute for Child Behaviour Research in the US to see if there was any way the problem could be alleviated.
Prior to the research with anechoic chambers, two French physicians, Alfred Tomatis and Guy Berard, had independently pioneered research into using electronic devices to modulate sounds, with a view to solving the problems of people with hypersensitive hearing.
The research into anechoic chambers is taking this idea a step further, with a view to cutting out noise altogether. The aim is to alleviate the discomfort of children and adults who can’t tolerate loud noises, thus enhancing their quality of life.
People of all ages who have autism spectrum disorder may find it difficult not only to fall asleep but also to stay asleep at night. This can cause daytime tiredness and learning and behavioural problems. It can also affect the sleeping patterns of family members or carers too.
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