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Preparing people who are sound-sensitive for noisy cicadas

April 25, 2024
by Jane E. Dee

This spring, “nearly a trillion guests are coming, and we are not prepared.” So begins a recently published essay co-authored by Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) student Nathan Carroll, MPH '24.

The guests Carroll and his co-authors are referring to are two broods of cicadas that are expected to emerge simultaneously from their underground burrows “in a rhapsody of noisy and pervasive mating activity,” as the authors write in Psychiatric News. “The good news is that you don’t need to get the guest room ready – they won’t be here long.”

The rare emergence of overlapping 13- and 17-year cicada broods in the Midwest and southern U.S. this spring is expected to produce continuous cicada buzzing and singing sounds that can overwhelm individuals with sensory sensitivities ­– including those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the authors said.

Nearly 5.5 million people in the U.S. who have ASD experience sensory sensitivities and could be affected by the cicadas’ high-pitched buzzing – an impact that would be largely invisible to individuals who do not experience sensory sensitivities, the authors wrote.

"It's an incredible example of the interconnectivity between the environment, mental health, vulnerable populations, and ‘invisible’ symptoms," said Carroll, a student in the YSPH Executive MPH two-year program that provides public health education and training for working professionals.

“Most patients who have ASD will experience decreased sound tolerance and auditory sensitivity at some point in their lives,” said Carroll, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), and a chief resident at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “I'm particularly mindful that some of my patients may be extremely challenged by the noise the cicadas make and be in a great deal of distress due to how ubiquitous the sound is,” he added.

Coping Strategies

The essay includes coping strategies for people with ASD and their caregivers.

  • Social narratives can be used to prepare children with ASD, sensory conditions, or anxiety to develop coping skills, according to the Cincinnati Center for Autism, the authors said. Frame the event in a positive light by explaining its rarity and uniqueness, assuring children that the cicadas’ noise is temporary, according to the center.
  • Once the cicadas emerge, parents and caregivers can stay vigilant for, and respond to, the signs of noise hypersensitivity, which might include covering ears, avoiding situations with irritating noise, and becoming distressed without a clear trigger.
  • Wear headphones or earplugs when outdoors and reduce the amount of time spent outside.

“We can’t ignore the impact of the overlapping broods, especially for those whose existing mental health conditions may be exacerbated by the cicadas’ presence. As a society, we have the opportunity – and a moral imperative – to best support those most affected,” Carroll and his co-authors wrote. “We can also prioritize showing compassion and patience to those impacted, especially when those impacts are invisible to other.”

About Cicadas

Periodical cicadas (Magicicada) do not sting or bite, and they are not poisonous or known to transmit human disease. They also are not generally considered to be pests, so there is no reason to use pesticides on them, according to the University of Connecticut's general cicada information pages. Connecticut’s local cicada brood will not emerge until 2030.

“Insects often come in large numbers. What’s special about Magicicada is not the large numbers per se, but the periodicity – the predictable, synchronous emergence of large numbers of adults and their near-total absence in the years between,” according to the UConn report.

Emerging juveniles, called nymphs, live underground for 13 or 17 years, keeping track of seasonal cycles through some as-yet unknown mechanism. Emerging nymphs usually leave their burrows after sunset, shedding their skins and transforming into winged adults. The males sing chorus-like to attract mates. Mated females lay eggs in twigs to start the next generation of cicadas. Nymphs hatch from eggs and burrow underground where they will develop over the next 13 or 17 years by feeding upon tree roots, explained Chris T. Maier, emeritus scientist in the Department of Entomology at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Cicadas emerge in the spring when soil temperatures reach approximately 64 °F at a depth of 7 to 8 inches. Cicadas in the southern U.S. are expected to begin to emerge in late April. The emergence lasts for several weeks.

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on April 25, 2024