Cicada Emergence Could Affect People on the Autism Spectrum

Cicadas from brood XIX are seen on a tree in Angelville, Georgia on May 23, 2024. Credit - Elijah Nouvelage—AFP/Getty Images

As more than a trillion cicadas emerge from underground this month, experts warn that people on the autism spectrum or who are sensitive to sound may find the insects’ noise overwhelming.

The large co-emergence of cicadas from both a 13-year and 17-year brood this spring is the first of its kind in more than 200 years. The emergence has already begun in some regions, and the cicadas will be visible in several states, including Illinois, Iowa, Georgia, and Tennessee. The emergence is expected to last until June.

Read More: An Animated Guide to the Rare 2024 Cicada Co-Emergence

Once they emerge, male cicadas sing a mating call to attract female cicadas. Because of the insects’ large presence, the continuous and high-pitched buzzing sound can be loud; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that there were reports of noise levels reaching as high as 90 to 100 decibels in 2021. In April, the cicadas were so loud in a South Carolina county that residents called the sheriff’s office to ask why they were hearing sirens or a loud roar, Associated Press reported.

The cicada noise does not cause hearing loss, according to the CDC. But researchers warn that the sound may be overwhelming for the nearly 5.5 million people in the U.S. who have autism spectrum disorder and are sensitive to sound.

People who are on the autism spectrum may be sensitive to certain sensory experiences, Dr. Rachel Follmer, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells TIME. Unexpected loud sounds in particular, like sirens or blenders, can be upsetting for some people on the spectrum. Because of this, some people on the spectrum may be sensitive to the noise or sight of the cicada emergence, Follmer says.

“With the expected emergence and volume of cicadas that are expected to emerge, there’s a potential for it to be quite loud when you go outside, which would be kind of an unexpected change,” Follmer says. “Both the volume of the noise and the fact that that’s not their normal experience could potentially be a big trigger for those individuals who are on the spectrum or even just individuals who are not on the spectrum but have sound sensitivities.”

Follmer, who is also a physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, offers several steps that parents can take to prepare their children, who may be more sensitive to the cicada noise. Those steps could include watching YouTube videos or listening to audio clips with children to familiarize them with the sounds and developing a plan of what to do if the sound is overwhelming, such as having headphones or earplugs readily available. Parents could also show their children photos of cicadas to explain what they are and why they’re emerging.

Follmer also suggests using social stories—which are narratives that walk children through a situation and what they can expect—to help children prepare.

“It kind of walks through all of the different steps and even talks about things that are going to be aversive,” Follmer says of social stories. “With the cicadas, you would be like ‘when we go outside, it’s going to be a lot noisier than normal, that might hurt your ears, you might feel nervous or scared.’ And then walk through like, what can that child do?”

“For most children, the more information they have, the more they know about something, the more they are able to kind of understand and cope with those situations,” she continues.

Follmer adds that the emergence could also affect people who are not on the autism spectrum, but have sensory sensitivities.

“We all can have sensory experiences that we don’t tolerate as well,” Follmer says. “I think the difference is, for many individuals on the spectrum, is it’s more intense in how that impacts their lives.”

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