Saturday, March 11, 2006

Late Winter Light

Last week Charlie from Autismland had some difficult days. Bud was having trouble sleeping in spite of the fact that Mom-NOS was giving him some additional melatonin. Kev noted in a comment in Autismland that his little Meg, in the UK, was having a hard time as well. And Sweet M had an outburst at school that, while milder than her meltdown a few months ago, was nonetheless discouraging.

Unlike coeur-ageous autismland fellow traveler Kristina Chew, I did not have the heart to write at length about Sweet M's late winter meltdown. Instead I slept more, and trying to forget about all this, dove under the covers with an intensity that surprised even me — dreaming of . . . dreaming of . . . what, exactly?

One day I dreamt that there had been a terrible mistake and that there was nothing wrong with Sweet M, that she was perfectly fine. Later in the week, as I was avoiding all sorts of writing, I dreamt that I was being tested for dyslexia. I have never actually been tested for dyslexia, but in my dream the exam involved viewing a diamond-shaped pattern on a piece of paper that had two diagonal folds. If you could see the fold line continuously, you were typical, but if the fold line appeared to have any breaks in it, then you were dyslexic.

When I tried to make a drawing of it, it looked strangely like an argyle pattern.

In this dream I was diagnosed as dyslexic because I was seeing a broken line in the lower right-hand quadrant. But then the person administering the test moved the test sheet and I could see that it was only the glare from the light that had made the fold line look broken or intermittent. The glare had changed my vision. At one moment I was diagnosed dyslexic, and in the next, with barely an adjustment of the test paper, I was "normal" again.

The glare of the light off the surface of the paper had made the difference.

Temple Grandin advises educators to use a low contrast paper when asking some children in the spectrum to work with text. Donna Williams writes of wearing special Irlen tinted lenses to soften the effect of light on her disposition.

For we human creatures, autistic and NT alike, light matters. Although I'm no endocrinologist, I know that light levels affect our hormones, our neurotransmitters, even our vitamin levels.

When night falls, melatonin levels rise and, if we are not too sensitive to artificial light or subjected to jet travel across time zones, we grow drowsy and sleep. For those of us who sleep through the night without wetting ourselves, we can thank an anti-diuretic hormone that kicks in when the sun goes down.

Our cycles of fertility are said to have been tied to the changing light of moon, with ovulation triggered by the brightness night of the full moon and menstruation falling in the dark of the moon. Some authors speculate that as we've disenchanted the night, first lighting caves with torches, and then whole cities with gas lights and electricity, we've unmoored that lunar cycle.

Bright light boosts levels of serotonin, and exposure to bright lights can be used to treat seasonal affective disorder — the winter blues. And we have known for a very long time that sunlight triggers vitamin D synthesis in the skin. We know how much light matters, yet we still believe that we control ourselves and our affect. And these are just a few of the most commonly observed light-induced physiological effects.

So you can see, I have been thinking a great deal about light in the past week, as the days have grown so much longer and the mid-day sun is so bright that it hurts my eyes. After years of difficulties that appeared in the late winter and early spring time — depression, anxiety, loss of focus, emotional fragility and irritability — I was finally diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal cyclothymia. Sudden changes in the amount of daylight change me in palpable ways. Often, at this time of year, I have the urge to close the shades and plunge under the dark and cozy comforter even when I'm not coping with changes in Sweet M's behavior.

When required by the demands of life to emerge into the bright daylight, I used to be unaccountably irritable or surly. Like bears who are most dangerous when first awakened from hibernation, my affect can be dysregulated as I adjust to the new brightness of the spring. Now that I am more aware of these cycles, I am more prepared for the arrival of spring fever and more able to breath in, and breath out, and avoid regretable interpersonal snarls and snags.

If the segue from winter to spring can still challenge me, an adult with many years of experience navigating the transition from winter to spring and with a more or less typical neurological makeup, how much more difficult must it be for kids in the spectrum, who are so sensitive to light, to sound, to changes of temperature, to nuances of mood and affect?

We speak of our children having difficulty with transitions, but we typically think of those transitions as changes in our daily routines or our holiday and school calendars. Removed, as we are, from our agricultural origins, and discounting the importance of our mammalian heritage, we are likely to overlook the impact of the natural transitions that come with the changes of the seasons. I would have, had it not been for the daily posts from Autismland — and dispatches from all over the spectrum — which helped to shed new light on the week's dysregulations.



Anonymous said...


I have SAD. I read somewhere... that SAD is more common among ASD people.

I used to live near the Canadian border in a valley in Montana... it was soooo dark. I had to move. (that was before I got the AS dx, but I got the SAD dx up there).

Bright light helps. It doesn't have to be full spectrum light. That's an old-wives tale, though full spectrum light is "pretty". I respond quickly to light levels. I used to take Prozac for it, it helped. I don't take Prozac now because it seemed to cause myoclonic seizures (jerks) and it was making me have hot flashes (strange but true). I'm not on any antidepressant now, for a year.

I don't know if Prozac's a good idea for kids (maybe not), but it worked for me. Light therapy has no big side effects, though, it can "wire" you if you are really sensitive to it. It helps to turn on all the lights in the house, even though it seems wasteful. Open the curtains and go for a walk, too, even if it's a bit overcast. Getting light on your skin seems to help, too. If you can warm up your house and run around in shorts and a t-shirt with bright lights going... Having the house warm helps, too, maybe psychologically.

kristina said...

Jim's been bringing up that "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb" dictum for a couple of weeks---with me, he always ends it by saying "but I bet you never said that growing up in California."

"Yes we did," I always say. After which, we have a happy agree-to-disagree spousal discussion about east coast vs. west coast weather. "There ARE seasons in northern California. It's more subtle."

"But how you can really say it?" asks Jim.

I will say, I'm not much affected by light or dark---I could probably fall asleep on a staircase under fluorescent lighting if need be, I'm just tired at the right time. When we lived in St. Paul, I loved it --- found it fascinating that the hours of light and dark changed so dramatically. But both Jim and Charlie got more than stir-crazy without the regular light, the freezing cold, and being indoors with the heat roaring. Perhaps it's the vestiges of my ancestral roots in rural Southern China---the light got into my genes, so to speak! (Oddly enough, the weather I dislike most is the hot humid days of high summer, which are more similar to what my peasant forebears lived in, working in the fields. I still carry on, but I don't like it.)

I'm just so struck that we in the autism blogosphere have all been writing about similar themes. Something more than coincidence, hap, and synchronicity is at work, it seems. I have learned to brace myself during February and March for Charlie-melt (down).

We have tried Prozac with Charlie and it made him very, very aggressive. Almost as if it was triggering something too much in him--as if it made him see too much.

Hope M's week (and yours----how is your head?) ended better as did Charlie's?

Christine said...

The same thing has been going on in my house. I know I am deeply affected by the change of seasons and lately Oliver's worst behaviors have started to resurface. I'm stuck wondering if they are his own reaction to nature or to the change in ME. We are so closely bound to our children that it wouldn't surprise me. Anyway, like you, I haven't posted much because, frankly I couldn't put the words together in the right order. But it did help to read that so many others were experiencing the same thing.

Hope you and Sweet M are back on track with this glorious early spring weather we're having.

Anonymous said...

In winter there's usual vitamin D deficit, so you need to get it. But be careful with winter UV, use winter skin care products with UV filters!