Cicadas are loud. For those with sensory issues, it can be overwhelming.

High-pitched whining. A shrill buzzing. A cacophony of clicking.

For some autistic people, cicadas’ mating calls aren’t just an interesting anomaly or slightly annoying background noise - they can actually be painful. Sensory sensitivities are common in those with autism, many of whom seem to be particularly sensitive to sound and have a reduced tolerance for loud noises.

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And cicadas can get infamously loud, especially when they emerge in enormous groups known as a brood. Some have been recorded at sound levels of over 100 decibels, which is louder than the sounds of traffic or a lawn mower. Already this year, dozens residents of South Carolina recently called the police in an alarmed response to the noise of recently hatched cicadas in the area.

Prudence Stansbury, 31, still remembers the impact the sound of cicadas had on her son Zayn, 9, who has sensory processing disorder. In 2021, a large brood of cicadas emerged where they live in Middletown, Ohio, and at first, Zayn thought the big bugs were cool. But then, they got louder.

“Getting him from the house to the car was a panic-inducing issue for him,” Stansbury said. “He would cry, he would cover his ears and he would just be hyperventilating.”

In addition to using noise-canceling headphones and limiting outdoor activities, Stansbury and her partner found that humming together or listening to music or helped Zayn calm down when he felt overwhelmed - especially any music with heavy bass sounds. But even with these techniques and even when they were inside, Stansbury said her son still seemed on edge until the cicadas disappeared.

“It was so hard,” she said. “It’s one of those things as a mother where you feel horrible because there’s only so much you can do.”

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A double dose of cicadas

Trillions of periodical cicadas are expected to emerge this spring and summer across the Midwest and South. For the first time since 1803, two different broods of cicadas - Brood XIX and Brood XIII - are emerging simultaneously to (loudly) search for mates.

While most people will be able to tune out the sounds they make, autistic people may have a more difficult time filtering out this auditory input, according to Nathan Carroll, psychiatric chief resident at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

“The noise feels like it is at 100 percent all the time. Everything is on full blast,” Carroll said.

Researchers haven’t figured out why autistic people tend to be more sensitive to sound, but one hypothesis suggests that they may experience issues with auditory input that result in their brains over-amplifying sound to compensate.

For Julianne Butler, a 25-year old autistic woman, the experience of hearing cicadas around her house in Denton, Tex., during the summer is deeply disconcerting. Texas has more than 50 species of annual cicadas that emerge every summer. (The double brood emergence isn’t affecting Texas, the state’s periodical Brood IV, won’t come back until 2032.)

“I can’t focus, I can’t think and I can’t function. Generally I just fully shut down,” she said. “Everything is just thrown off and my brain can’t process everything around me.”

Butler can hear the cicadas from inside her house and noise-canceling headphones don’t fully mask the sound. This makes it difficult for her to focus on work, complete household chores or create art. When she is able to get to a quiet location, the overstimulation usually takes hours to recover from, she said.

To cope during a cicada emergence, she makes more frequent trips to parts of the city with fewer trees or parks (which meant that there were also less cicadas). And every evening before bed, her partner used a hose to spray the trees and lawn around her house, which quieted them long enough for Butler to be able to fall asleep.

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Coping tips for the cicada sensitive

Rain tends to lessen cicadas’ singing, and water does not harm them, though a pressure washer could do damage, according to Gene Kritsky, an entomologist who has studied periodical cicadas for the past 50 years. Cicadas are also quieter in the evening and stop singing at night, so those who are sensitive to cicadas may want to plan to go outside in the evening.

Kritsky said people should not use pesticides to try to control cicadas - in addition to being a potential environmental hazard that would kill other insects, it’s also ineffective, Kritsky said.

In general, cicadas start singing about five days after they first emerge, he said, and because they emerge in a staggered fashion, the loudness of the cicadas steadily grows before it peaks around two or three weeks after they start singing and then gradually declines. The sound should only last for about four weeks total.

“They’re not going to be here forever,” Kritsky said.

One thing that those with sound sensitivity can do is to prepare themselves ahead of time, Carroll said. He suggests people listen to cicadas on YouTube to acclimate to the sound, and for parents with an autistic or sound sensitive child, he suggests that they talk to their children and tell them what to expect.

“It’s better to take steps now than it is to deal with it after the bugs emerge,” Carroll said.

Once the cicadas have emerged in your area, he encourages people to bring noise-canceling headphones or earplugs with them on any outings, and prepare to have a backup plan in place - such as getting back into the car or going into a nearby building - if the sound becomes overwhelming.

Another technique that can help is to use positive sensory experiences to help cope with negative ones, according to Brett Enneking, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. For example, she said, having a fidget toy or stuffed animal or some other soothing texture that they can rub might help people better regulate their stress response or emotions. Deep breathing or deep pressure (like a hug) can also help.

“The answer is not to never go outside, but when I go outside, what can I bring with me?” Enneking said.

For parents, its important to be aware that children with sensory processing disorder or autism may not be able to clearly explain when they are uncomfortable, she said, so parents should also pay attention to their children’s body language. Nonverbal cues that could indicate someone is being overstimulated by the sound include tensing up, getting upset when they have to go outside, and being more irritable or volatile.

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