Spring is here and all that goes with it: birds singing, flowers blooming, warm afternoons playing outside and cool nights with the windows opened a crack to let the breeze in. An end to cabin fever. A chance to tire the kids out so mom and dad can get a break in the evening.
But for those of us with kiddos on the spectrum, spring can bring some other things too. I know at our house it's brought an increase in our kids' autism and PANS symptoms.
It's a familiar, frustrating situation: your son or daughter seemed to be making progress and getting into a good groove and now all of a sudden they've regressed. Meltdowns are abundant. Phobias have returned you thought were put to bed (no pun intended, but our son's PANS induced fears of sleeping alone always seem to rise again). Stimming is out of control. What gives?
Kids on the autism spectrum as a whole exhibit more severe symptoms in the spring and the fall for several reasons. One is the pollen count. Huh? Pollen?
That's right. Autism is an autoimmune disorder. That means the body's immune system is attacking the body's cells instead of attacking germs. Know what allergies are? Simialr deal. When someone has an allergic reaction to something. (say, pollen for instance), the body's immune system attacks the harmless something (like, pollen) as if it were an attacking germ. It's really the immune response that generates all those annoying symptoms: sneezing, watery eyes, stuffy/runny nose, itching.
So, let's put 2 and 2 together. Our kids with autism almost all have allergy issues. Spring comes and allergens are flying. Their bodies send out the troops (immune system troops) to fight the invading pollen. Because our kids have immune system dysregulation, their troops get easily distracted and off course (hmm, my kids distracted and off course? imagine that) and wind up going after the body's own cells too. Brain cells. Now you've got increased inflammation in the brain and that can only mean one thing: increased autism symptoms.
Don't get me wrong, I love spring. We had a lovely little egg hunt yesterday (doctor Moms work holidays so Easter came a day early at our house) but we also had a lot of issues.
So, what can we do?
The most important thing is to develop an integrative care plan and stick to it. That means working with your doctor on biomedical interventions for the allergies and everything else contributing to the autism: diet, allergy testing and treatment (including LDA), gut healing, treating chronic infections, immune modulating therapy, detoxification, etc.
With that established, keep the following tips in mind:
1. Watch their diet
Spring brings with it Easter candy, Girl Scout cookie time, and more time out socializing at houses that probably don't follow the same diets our kids need. It's easy to decide to loosen up and let sugar, gluten and casein back in. Some of our kids are on stricter diets (FODMAPS, low phenol, Feingold etc.) which can be even harder to stick to. Remind yourself you have a child with a medical issue and they need to follow the restricted diet just as surely as a child with diabetes or other medical problems (even it pulls at your heartstrings not to hand out milk chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. I know my childhood memories involved at least 10 pounds of candy consumed for Easter morning breakfast alone).
2. Address the allergies
Make sure your child has had allergy testing for environmental allergies and is being treated. If you can't get to the doctor any time soon, use over-the-counter Flonase for general allergies until you can. The best treatment to truly cure allergies is LDA (Low Dose Allergy therapy) but requires seeing a physician who administers it.
Food allergies are difficult to test for. The best approach is to keep a diary for a few weeks of everything your child eats throughout the day and any changes in behaviors or symptoms you see (tingling mouth, stomach pains, dark circles under the eyes, itchiness, mood changes). Look for possible food intolerances and then test it out by eliminating one food for a few weeks. Monitor symptoms for improvement. Then, reintroduce that food and see if negative symptoms return. If so, you know you need to eliminate that food. Now, repeat the process again with a different food. Eliminate from the diet foods he or she cannot tolerate and get everyone in your son or daughter's life on board (school, social groups, grandparents, non-custodial parents etc.)
3. Routine, routine, routine!
Being off school for Easter break really throws our kids off. They're excited to be off school and for the god old Easter Bunny to come hopping down the lane, but their routine has dissipated and it leaves them anxious and out of sorts. Maintain as much structure and routine as you can during the break. Keep your kids busy. Maintain consistent discipline and rules as much as possible. Talk to your child's therapists and teachers ahead of time to get tips specific to your child.
Mainstream allergy doctors will tell you to minimize time outdoors in high pollen season and sleep with your windows shut, I disagree, Our kids need exercise and time outside more than anything. Let them go barefoot and get dirty. Encourage them to run and jump and be loud and silly. Above all else, spend time connecting with them and being silly yourself. It's hard watching our kids having a flare, but if we're there with them helping them through it, it's just a bump on the path towards healing. And after all, there are Easter eggs and tulips along the way.
Happy Easter from Holland