For Kids On The Spectrum, Time Change Brings Angst
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Before third-grader Shellten Brown arrives at school, teachers at Viola Gibson Elementary already have planned every minute of his day — from his morning routine to reading lessons to when he can go to the restroom.
Sticking to a predictable schedule is a comfort for Shellten and many other children on the autism spectrum.
The switch to daylight saving time — which began Sunday — can throw off that schedule, educators and pediatricians say.
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While the hour lost by springing ahead can be an inconvenience to many, it can take some with autism spectrum disorder weeks to adjust.
“The largest group of kids that have difficulties dealing with the time change are kids with autism,” said Dr. Deborah Lin-Dyken, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “Kids with autism can be very rigid with routines and schedules.”
Children on the spectrum often respond to visual cues, she said. So they become used to going to sleep when it’s dark outside and waking up after the sun comes up. Moving the clock forward as summer nears breaks that pattern.
That “mixes up their signals,” said Julia Hendred, an autism specialist for the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
“We see that sometimes when they come to school,” Hendred said. ” … I think they may count on school as well to be super routine oriented. They want to come and they want to know: my schedule is going to stay the same at school.”
Special education teachers at Viola Gibson Elementary, where the district offers all of its special education programming, said they notice changes in most students because of the time shift to maintain daylight longer in the evenings.
“It’s hard to accept, they don’t understand,” said Andrea Soukup, who teaches kindergarten and first-grade special education. “They don’t understand why they’re tired and they’re cranky. The whole day is in a daze of tiredness.”
Children with autism spectrum disorder often become anxious and upset when met with a change, Lin-Dyken said, which can lead to tantrums, irritability or defiance.
Incremental changes leading up to daylight saving time — shifting the schedule by 10 or 15 minutes every day — can help a child with autism adjust, she said, as can extra exercise and using light-blocking shades to mimic familiar visual cues at bedtime.
But the best course, Lin-Dyken said, is to stick to a child’s routine as much as possible.
At school, where the beginning and end times of the day can’t shift, “we just continue with lots of love and understanding and patience,” Hendred said.
The end of daylight saving time in the fall has a similar effect on children on the autism spectrum, as many students’ internal clocks wake them up too early.
It’s important to realize “kids on the autism spectrum may take longer to adjust to daylight saving time than other kids,” Lin-Dyken said. “If they’ve been doing well in school all along and now they’re struggling or falling asleep — it may be related to this.”
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