Autism and Heat Intolerance: How to Handle the Warm Weather
Jul 10, 2023, 5 min read
Autistic individuals may experience a number of sensory issues that can greatly impact their everyday life, so if you have autism and experience heat intolerance, you may find the summer months particularly challenging when the weather is hot.
Here, we are diving into the topic of autism and heat intolerance; why it happens, coping strategies, and whether your reaction to heat could indicate you are on the autism spectrum.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about sensory issues in autism, we’re here to help.
What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting how people interact with others, the world around them, and how they understand and respond to sensory information. Due to common sensory issues experienced by those with autism, some individuals may react negatively to certain triggers.
According to the Autism Research Institute, an autistic person who experiences sensory issues may withdraw from physical touch, refuse to wear certain types of clothing that do not feel pleasant or that they are not used to, refuse to perform certain hygiene functions such as washing their face or hair, and more.
Why do autistic people experience sensory issues?
Atypical sensory-based behaviours are a key feature of autism; over 96% of autistic children are reported to have hyper and hypo-sensitivities in this area, and wider research shows that 94% of autistic adults exhibit sensory reactivity differences, meaning they have notably different sensitivities to external stimuli than neurotypical adults.
Participants in one study reported a wide range of visual hypersensitivities, such as light, motion, patterns and specific colours. Some autistic people may also develop ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) due to sensory issues around the taste, smell, texture or temperature of certain foods. All of these sensory issues can cause distractions for the individual, and participants in the study said they felt fatigue and stress during daily activities such as travel and socialising.
According to the National Autistic Society, autistic individuals can be under or over-sensitive to visual elements, which may cause poor depth perception, distorted vision, light sensitivities, blurry central vision (but sharp peripheral vision) or vice versa, and more.
Similarly, those with autism may have sensitivities to sounds, for example, they may only be able to hear in one ear, may not acknowledge particular sounds, may prefer quiet places to loud, noisy places, may hear noises as magnified, distorted or muddled, may be able to hear conversations in the distance, may be unable to distinguish from background noise, and more.
And — as is relevant to the heat intolerance that some autistic people experience — they may also be under or over-sensitive to touch. For example, holding things tightly, having a high pain threshold, being unable to feel food in their mouth, enjoying weighted objects (like a weighted blanket) on top of them, experiencing painful touch, disliking wearing shoes or certain clothes, and more.
As a result, autistic individuals may exhibit atypical behaviours in an attempt to avoid the above instances, such as covering their eyes to shield from bright lights.
Why do autistic people experience heat intolerance?
As above, autistic individuals may experience either an indifference to heat, or a sensitivity to it. An indifference to pain or temperature is thought to be due to higher perceptual thresholds for thermal stimuli, however data to support this theory is inconclusive.
One study found that decreased heat sensitivity in autistic adolescents could be associated with cognitive impairments related to attentional deficits, while another study suggests both sensory and cognitive experiences of pain are heightened in adults with autism. Further studies have found that higher autistic traits were associated with a higher cold pain tolerance and a lower laser heat pain-intensity rating.
So ultimately it seems that heat sensitivity is unique to the individual, and sensory issues of this nature are not the same for all autistic people.
Why can heat intolerance be a problem for autistic people?
If you are autistic and experience heat intolerance, this can cause issues, including extreme discomfort during the summer months when the weather can get very warm and humid. Hypersensitivity to a number of things can cause issues when it comes to the feeling of sweat, the sensation of warmth, and the feeling of certain clothes, all of which could feel uncomfortable (or even unbearable) for those with autism sensory issues.
Remember, not everyone with autism will experience these sensory issues, but they are rather common so it is important to understand them and, if possible, take steps to alleviate the discomfort for yourself or your loved one.
There tends to be poor public understanding of sensory issues in autism, which can affect an autistic person’s ability to manage their sensory symptoms day to day. With more understanding of these issues, infrastructure can be put in place to help autistic individuals manage their symptoms and avoid sensory triggers that cause discomfort.
Coping techniques for heat intolerance in autism
Advice and support for those with autism is best when it is bespoke and individualised, because symptoms vary so much from person to person, and what works for one person may not work for another. However, if you or someone you love is autistic and struggles with heat intolerance during the summer months, there are a number of coping techniques and tips that could help.
In warm weather, you could consider:
- Keeping fans or air conditioning running around the home to stay comfortable throughout the day
- Wearing baggy clothes (or whatever is most comfortable) to increase airflow and limit the feeling of sweat on the body
- Doing regular swimming sessions in cool water if possible to relieve stress during hot weather
- Avoiding use of the oven when cooking to limit any additional heat in the home
- Providing frozen snacks to cool body temperature
- Staying inside during heat waves and keeping curtains closed to minimise the temperature
If your loved one struggles with the heat, keep asking them how they are feeling and take any suggestions they have to keep cool. The aim is to help them feel better and limit their heat sensitivity, so whatever will make them feel cooler could help.
Is heat intolerance a sign of being on the autism spectrum?
If you struggle greatly with the hot weather or being in extreme temperatures, you may be wondering if your reaction could indicate that you are on the autism spectrum. While this can be an indication of sensory issues, it is usually impossible to tell whether or not this is simply a general discomfort in hot temperatures or a symptom of autism.
If you want to find out if you are on the autism spectrum, or what happens in an adult autism assessment, you can reach out to a healthcare professional who can test and diagnose you, such as your GP or a private specialist like the team here at Augmentive. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private autism assessment or review, to broader mental health care: join us today.