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Monday, November 28, 2011

How Weather Affects Behavior

Most parents of kids with autism will tell you that changes in the weather have an impact on their child's behavior. When Aidan has a bad day I look back at whether he was sick, there was a change in his routine, if it was a full moon, and what the weather was doing. God forbid ALL of those happen at once. I have no idea if it's the rain, the change in pressure, some effect on his routine, or what the correlation actually is, I just know it's a fact, and Aidan's teachers and my fellow autism parents will back me up.

Strangely enough, I've found almost no research probing a connection between the weather and autistic behaviors. There is a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it doesn't matter what season it is for most of the kids I know; it can be summer-time and if there's a big storm system coming through, they are almost guaranteed to have some behavior issues, even if it's just stimming more than usual.

One of the few studies I found through Google explores the connection between rainy climates and autism prevalence. According to the study, “Children in California, Oregon and Washington are more likely to develop autism if they lived in counties with higher levels of annual rainfall when they were 3 or younger, suggesting that something about wet weather may trigger the disorder.” This could be because of the lack of sunshine, the increased exposure to television because of the inability to play outside, longer exposure to cleaning chemicals or other toxic substances, or the pressure changes inherent with weather systems which produce precipitation.

In 1898, Edwin Dexter, a Denver school teacher, became curious about how barometric pressure affected thebehavior of his students (neurotypical we can assume, since it's unlikely that autistic children were permitted in standard classrooms at this time) and studied 606 cases of corporal punishment over a 4 year period. He found that days with abnormal barometric pressure did in fact have a higher rate of behavior issues.

A 1990 article in Nation's Business discussed how the changes in weather affect us biologically. According to the article, which quotes scientists from The National Institute of Mental Health and Johns Hopkins, temperature affects our hypothalamus (the body's thermostat), sunlight alters the balance of hormones, and changes in humidity and barometric pressure affect our blood flow and therefore the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. The article stresses the fact that the amount of oxygen in the blood is majorly affected by the barometric pressure which affects memory, as well as the ability to deal with frustrations and minor annoyances. They note that when animals feel these effects of weather changes they tend to hide out in their den until they feel better, but when we feel these effects social needs demand that we try to continue to function.

Another study looked at in a 2004 issue of “Crime Times” (silly name I know!) found a connection between psychiatric symptoms and barometric pressure. The researchers documented both violent crimes, suicides, emergency psychiatric visits, and psychiatric admissions in Louisville in 1999, and weather conditions such as humidity, wind speed, and barometric pressure. They found a link between acts of violence and emergency psychiatric visits with the barometric pressure (none between suicide or inpatient admissions). Schory and his team noted that barometric pressure was associated with changes in cerebral blood flow, premature labor, and changes in certain endorphins related to depression. Their ultimate finding was that “"barometric pressure may alter the propensity toward impulsive behavior through changes in brain monoamines or cerebral blood flow."

Although the majority of these studies did not directly connect autistic behaviors and weather changes, they do all show that mood and behavior are affected by barometric pressure. If even neurotypical people have a difficult time pinpointing what is making them feel upset or easily frustrated, and children have a harder time with it than adults, how much MORE difficult is it for our children on the spectrum?! In addition, since we don't know exactly what makes our children autistic to begin with, and scientists are still exploring the biological and physiological differences that cause or are caused by autism, we have no idea to what extent changes in weather really affect our children and their behavior.

Communication issues prevent our children from telling us what is hurting them or how they feel, making it that much more frustrating for them when they feel poorly due to the weather. What if it gives them a headache, or drops their serotonin levels so they can't focus or are easily upset? Aidan couldn't even tell me his teeth hurt when he was cutting molars and having meltdowns daily. And he is VERY high-functioning and pretty verbal.

I have to ask myself if I'm just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy when I expect negative behaviors on days when the weather changes, or if I'm just being proactive and preparing myself to deal with the inevitable behavior problems that stem from changes in the weather. Considering that it's been raining for 2 days now and is supposed to snow tonight and tomorrow, I don't look forward to the behavior problems that are likely to come from the weather.

What links have you noticed between the weather and your child's behavior? Have you come across any studies linking the two?

3 comments:

  1. For the record, Ash has Autism AND Seasonal Affective, and OH YES do they interact! --->

    http://unhandicapping.com/seasonal-affective-disorder-sensory-processing-disorder-and-autism/

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