Loud sounds from cicadas could have impact on people with autism, sensory issues

Experts recommend being prepared with protective gear
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Posted at 12:24 PM, May 11, 2021

CINCINNATI, Ohio — When the Brood X cicadas emerge in parts of the U.S. later this month, they’ll be big and they’ll be loud.

“It's crickets-on-steroids kind of thing,” said Dr. Ian Windmill, senior director of audiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “It's not as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard, but it’s just so persistent. That's kind of the part that drives you crazy.

Windmill said the sounds the cicadas make can get up to about 100 decibels. For comparison, he said the average voice is 50 to 60 decibels and a shout is about 70 to 75.

The loud, buzzing drone can be annoying for anyone, but for a person with autism or a hearing sensitivity, these sounds could cause an emotional or physical reaction.

"To someone who has sensory issues, and someone on the autism spectrum who deals with these, all of those sounds are at 100% volume, all the time, and just going through their head and pounding,” said Autism Rocks founder David Kalhe.

Kalhe knows first-hand what it’s like to care for a child with sensory issues. His 16-year-old son, Parker, has autism and has been highly sensitive to noise from a young age. The solution Kalhe found for helping his son was right at his local hardware store.

“They have headphones that are used in industrial techniques, and depending on the thickness of them, they determine what the decibel range is that they'll bring the noise down," Kahle said. "There's also the foam earplugs that can be used as well, too.”

Windmill said children who have migraine headaches and people who have hearing loss — with some ringing in their ears already — may also have a strong reaction to the cicada sounds. Young children are susceptible as well because their hearing is so pristine.

He recommends trying to minimize the impact for these sensitive populations by doing things like staying indoors and wearing hearing protection.

Kahle also says it’s best to be prepared. He's getting Parker ready by watching videos of cicadas on YouTube.

“He is not as communicative, so we watch those videos over and over and over and it's the reinforcement of, 'This is coming. Don't be so afraid,'” Kahle said. “And it's not just the younger children. It's the young adults as well that we need to be concerned about.”

Windmill said parents can look out for emotional responses or exaggerated reactions from their kids who may be sensitive to noise. If a child would usually react when the band marches by during a parade, for example, they may have a reaction to the cicadas as well. He said if the child is out and about, the simple solution may be the best one.

“A big thing is people do cover their ears, because it seems like a simple solution to the child,” Windmill said. “But that's how I can block sound out.”

He does point out, however, that the noise from cicadas themselves likely won’t cause hearing damage.

“I do think it's important to realize that people are not going to really lose hearing over the cicadas, because they're going to avoid the loud sounds, they're going to be indoors,” he said.

Children and adults may also experience anxiety associated with the Brood X emergence because of the size, noise and sheer numbers of cicadas. TriHealth has a list of tips and resources for how to cope with cicada anxiety.

This story was originally published by Raven Richard at WCPO.