"Jimmy, blow your nose!" An early memory gains meaning when it overlaps recent experience. I didn't like my sniffle but I didn't care for the alternative either. Thus, I muffled the thing and spaced the stolen, extra vigorous inhalations. I didn't breath comfortably much of the time and still can't unless I take a half tablet of antihistamine, especially when the temperature drops a couple degrees.
I didn't connect my memory from four decades ago with George's complaints about his wife. He became furious whenever she talked on the telephone, even in the next room, while he watched television. There were no hidden cognitive resentments; he could not shut out the background noise. Both George and I are annoyed by radios that aren't tuned properly; we react less to static in the picture. I understood George more after my coronary by-pass; there were eight weeks during which I could not follow the conversation if two people spoke simultaneously. Even background whispering in staff meetings elicited twin urges to yell and to leave the room.
The "noise thing" appears often, now that I know to ask for it.
a) Amos was a strongly driven salesman who sedated himself with news programs after work. Any comment from his wife elicited yelling.
b) Andy shares my office couch with his mother. "Stop cracking your knuckles!" He smiles and does one or two more. Mom also is fussy about the radio tuning.
c) Chuck fidgets during homework; dad orders him repetitively, "Sit still." Dad can't concentrate on the school work when Chuck makes small noises.
d) There are children who tell me they cannot ignore a friend's talking in the next row; there are probably legions of teachers who object to fidgeting, not for the attention issue, but because she cannot filter the noise herself.(1, 2)
The noise issue can aggravate family life. Mike (13 yo) likes to turn up the television volume so he's not distracted by noises from his parents or sister in adjoining rooms. Unfortunately, they also have a "filter problem" and can't concentrate themselves because of his television noise. Fights are common. Similar events frame bickering children in the back of the car. (3)
Dorm life had its variations on this theme, for example, the guy upstairs bouncing a golfball on his floor, my ceiling, at random intervals. I remember all nighters with my books. The birds synchronously tuned their chirps at 3 A.M. under an avian baton in the blue black Denver sky. I learned nothing; No Doz made the effect worse.
Partial solutions include:
a) Identify the problem for parents who complain about their noisy children. Asking about radio static, traffic noises, and background conversations may give you a piece of data that you can apply to the child's credit. Is the child extra noisy or can't dad filter it? Usually parents make the altruistic interpretation and start to blame their own wiring instead of the child. Pressure on the child should lessen.
b) Give a reason to parents for the child's noises. Fidgeting is associated with maintaining arousal in some children. (Likewise for their strange postures when reading). Some adults, too, will drift to sleep if they're not moving. Rock and roll appears to help some children remain alert when studying; humming over the books could be a sign that something good is happening. Parents need to keep some data and do some quizzes with and without music in the background to assess benefits.
c) Get a white noise generator. There are suggestions that white noise has arousing properties; a "sleep inducer" machine at a higher volume could have the opposite effect of increasing concentration and alertness while masking stray sounds. Earphones from a stereo could avoid distractions to and from the rest of the family.
d) Try ear plugs!
e) Several ADHD preteens have told me that stimulants allow them to attend to their friend's talking but not loose track of the teacher's lecture. They are able to maintain attention to both events.
f) Because of the highly idiosyncratic nature of children's learning, teach parents and older students to work systematically to tune study conditions. Being alone in a muffled room will not be effective for many people.
1) A disproportionate percent of ADHD children have ear infections in the first couple of years. Are there subsequent auditory filtering difficulties in these same children? Is there a causal relationship? Or a correlation? Is "noise distractibility" less an essential part of the diagnosis but one more of those 40% comorbidities that ADHD kids display?
2) I've known several school teachers with hints of ADHD. Such teachers react impulsively to active children and may be a greater source of the difficulty than the child is.
3) One factor in many family's buying miniature vans is the ability for the parents to separate the children not only from each other but also from the adults.