On Autism and Seasons

“And even when the trees have just surrendered
To the harvest time
Forfeiting their leaves in late September
And sending us inside
Still I notice You when change begins
And I am braced for colder winds
I will offer thanks for what has been and was to come
You are autumn…”
~Every Season, Nichole Nordeman


It’s October, and we are in a sort of crisis mode just as we were last year this time. When the weather turns, Rhema turns.

There’s resistance to extra clothing. The shift from T-shirts and shorts to long sleeves and pants is never appreciated. In the morning I must coax (and sometimes fight) her into her clothes, and she strips as soon as she gets home. If she gets frustrated or upset in public, the clothes start flying off. Donning pajamas is pointless.

A switch is flipped in October, and eating habits change. The picky eater gets pickier and favorite foods suddenly become offensive. She does away with breakfast all together. I’m left scrambling to find some food item that she may deem tolerable.

In autumn, she starts soiling her pants again and the Poop Art Show rolls back into town. (Weary sigh). Meltdowns, non-compliance, unusual stims return with a vengeance.

There’s always the issue of light. In the fall and winter, it’s just too dark. Over the past two years it’s become clear to me that she misses/craves the sunlight of summer. She insists on having the lights on in her room all night. She has a dimmer switch, and the lights are turned to the brightest.

While colder weather and shorter days might cause some to “hibernate”, these months are marked by insomnia for Rhema. Her nightly antics include shrieking, banging the walls and pounding the door, humming, laughing, crying, breaking down her bed, ripping books to shreds and painting her room in brown. Last year, her neurologist prescribed a rather strong sleep aid. It did not work. The doctor prescribed another, stronger medication, but I worried and never gave it to her. Then in early spring she began sleeping much better on her own, and it continued throughout the summer.

Difficult behaviors are heightened in September and October and persist throughout the winter (albeit to a lesser degree). I joked with Rhema’s therapist, T, that we needed to move somewhere where it’s ‘summer all the time.’ She suggested that I try a lightbox for Rhema – the kind used to treat individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder. It got me wondering if Rhema does indeed suffer some form of SAD and if this is common among people with autism. Rhema does not experience “winter depression”, but it absolutely amazes me how cyclical and predictable these behaviors have become – starting in September and abating at the end of March and beginning of April.

Oh, a part of me felt so discouraged this time. I hoped that she had outgrown it somehow. But just as we retreat inside when the leaves change and fall, so it seems does my girl. I feel it, too, the chill and dread of the coming season; the need to brace myself against its barreness and darkness. I know what winters past have brought. And just when I think I’m past it, the same old battles and fears come creeping in. All the more reason to fall on my knees and cling to Jesus, the same yesterday, today and forever. I’m reminded of how desperately I need His Light. Season by season, day by day, moment by moment.

And ‘faith never looks so grand in summer weather as it does in winter.’

It seems that Rhema and I are not alone in this seasonal disorder. A couple years ago, Tim from Both Hands and a Flashlight wondered if autistic persons might have a greater probability of having SAD than the general population. Last month, on a rare girls night out with Jess and Judith (woohoo!), they both shared that their children experienced regression during the change of season. Also in peak stim season is Joy, Rhema’s window-dancing sister across the way. I’d be really curious if anyone else has noticed such a link? Do some ASD behaviors vary by season?



*Picture source: http://www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk/download/4-seasons-1-tree.jpg

18 thoughts on “On Autism and Seasons

  1. I noticed this last year, but not this year so far (she seems less anxious now in general). I’m fascinated by the light box therapy though- please tell us if it works. We changed our light bulbs to full spectrum ones, but I’m not sure if it makes a difference or not. It can’t hurt though.

    My husband seems to get SAD too, depending on where we go next, we might be getting a light box for him.

    Also, I just found out I’m seriously deficient in vitamin D. We are outdoors often, so it is likely my body has trouble converting the sunlight. I think I’m going to get the kids checked too. A lighbox wouldn’t help with that though, as it needs to be UV rays, or supplementation.

  2. Absolutely!

    Fall is the hardest time for Wyatt. It is such a harsh change from carefree sunlit days to damp, cold, and get back to work days. It is also cold and flu season here and Wyatt has had 2 colds, and the stomach flu so far this month.

    From April to September he was doing so well. And now since mid September he has slowly become more and more overwhelmed, frustrated and exhausted. It is such a vicious cycle.

    We are just taking things really slowly right now, with lots of outdoor time and down time just to help him make it through the day.

    What I try to remember is that this is not permanent, this is a transition. He will get through this time and in April he will be back with the sun.

    Hang in there! We are cleaning up all the art work over here as well 😦


  3. Ooh, man.

    I’ll have to pay closer attention to see if behaviors here are affected by seasonal changes. I hadn’t thought to keep track that way!

    So glad you’ll have your partner back to help you and Rhema through this season.

  4. I have known many families who have experienced the change in season as you are experiencing things with Rhema. I think the light box is an awesome idea- and using it during any time she is seated or playing in one area: dinners, work tasks, extending her daylight hours. Has her Vitamin D level been checked? It could be related. Supposedly my kids’ Vit D levels are “adequate” but ferratin levels are low for gaining and maintaining sleep according to the guy we saw last Wednesday- to treat it we need to increase absorbable iron. Hope this season is more tolerable than the last and SO HAPPY your husband is home to share the load!

  5. Olivia has been head-banging and pinching more lately. And we’re back to nightly wake periods (and she’s on sleep meds…). I haven’t thought about how the change in season might have something to do with it…

    Prayers for a peaceful autumn. For all of us.

  6. Things are so much harder for us in the winter. This year I could feel it coming and started to dread short days as soon as September hit. It starts with my husband and trickles down to all of us.

  7. wow. i never thought of it in just such a way, but i have noticed that things go in cycles and that daniel’s interests change with the seasons and come around again…if that makes sense. i’ll be more aware, not that you’ve brought it up…

  8. Winter’s bite can be brutal. All the more reason, as you said, to be on our knees in prayer.

    I’m joining you on the floor as I walk my own winter season, and I’ll think of Rhema while I’m there. May the light and witness of Jesus Christ penetrate her winter with the absolute truth of his spring.


  9. Oh, yes. Nigel is very agitated this time of year. Some of his most difficult behavioral issues have happened in October and November. When he was younger, it was very difficult for him to make the switch to warmer clothing, although this year he seems to be doing a little better with that (finally). But this is still the worst time of year for him as far as agitation and irritability, and more difficulty falling asleep. *sigh*

  10. I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but Noah has definitely begun struggling. The first month of school was great and now we are getting more behavior reports for head banging and hitting. We’ve even had to make the decision to pull him off the bus until some of this stuff calms down. Bedtime is also becoming more of a challenge. Never really put it all together, but I think this same pattern happened last year.

  11. No doubt you are onto a pattern that is worth parsing for a cause related to the change of seasons. (Many Army posts in the south *coughTexascough*)

    I was also thinking about how many changes are attributed to the start of the school year – perhaps incorrectly?

    And then, your post following this one – perhaps the best time of year to review meds annually is in the fall. Meds are prescribed based on weight – no?

  12. We’re still trying to figure out what seasonal patterns Joy swings to — it took me years to figure out my own seasonal-affective issues! It does seem that all of Joy’s major regression-patterns have been in the short-light part of the year.

    As far as the outdoor stims, though, I’m rather looking forward to snow-cover. Joy can stim on the snow all she wants and I don’t have to wash it out of her hair…

  13. When the leaves begin changing color my heart begins to sink.. Autumn and winter are always so difficult for Jack. Sleep, aggression, stims .. poop. 😦 Wish I knew a better way to trudge through it..

  14. I just googled Vit. D and Autism and there is enough interesting research to make me almost motivated enough to keep a behaviour chart…almost.
    I don’t know if I metnioned this last year, forgive me if I did, but giving my son a woolen winter coat VS a nylon winter coat made a HUGE difference in compliance. The sound of the nylon is torture for him (thus his little sister has to wear a woolen coat too, so that he won’t try to lunge from his carseat with a blood curling scream each time she moves). An OT recently told me that the nylon aversion is common in the ASD community….wish we had known earlier!

  15. This is a fascinating topic! November and December are the hardest for me personally, but more due to the stress and uncertainty of the holidays and family issues.

    My husband definitely deals with SAD and has trouble more in January and February. We are still trying to identify whether our son has a pattern. Last year March and April were absolutely horrific, and the behavior specialist in the school district said she gets the most referrals in April. Not sure if that’s because the school year is long and the support staff gets lax on positive reinforcement, etc, but I think it’s definitely a good idea to chart your child’s cycles and see what patterns emerge.

  16. I thought it was just Gabi. Comforting to know that it’s not. Twice a year every year in March and September for at least a month the regression hits and it is the most trying times of the year. The Unresponsive, inattentive, nonverbal, stimming, toddler like behaviour is overwhelming at times but I know that once it’s done that my daughter “is back” and with considerable cognitive improvements that were not there prior to the regression…. Bittersweet times

  17. I was looking for a correlation between sad and ASD. I am raising my 6yr old grandson(since he was 8mos. Old). This fall I have really noticed the changes in K. Moody, aggressive, stims,it runs the gamut, and he falls asleep at 6 or 7pm and is then up and ready to go around 5or6am. K is level 2 autism, has ADHD,and o c d, and now most likely s a d,too. I’m still learning about ASD, I do a lot of research, especially for ways to better help K. I homeschool him,as he cannot function in a classroom. He began behavior therapy last April, which is 2 steps forward,3 steps back. But, everything I’ve read tonight makes sense and will help me better understand what K is going thru. He has SPD, and I can’t imagine the overload he must be going thru, but at least now I know why.

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