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The Link Between Autism and Temperature Regulation

The Link Between Autism and Temperature Regulation

Does your child with autism refuse to wear a coat in the winter or insist on wearing warmer clothes when it’s cold? Does a child’s body temperature often register a fever when they are perfectly healthy? Unfortunately, autism and temperature regulation issues often go hand-in-hand.

While it’s different for each individual, it’s a common problem many parents of autistic children face. But what can you do to help your child understand these issues and help them regulate their body’s core temperature?

Autism and temperature regulation

Many children with autism are often reported to have an indifference to temperature. While it’s believed that some type of thermal stimuli may be the reason for this indifference, research has, so far, been inconclusive in determining those stimuli. However, these temperature regulation issues can present themselves in different ways.

Children on the autism spectrum may be more averse to either hot or cold weather due to hypersensitivity. They may also experience changes in their core body temperature due to changes in outside temperature.

This may present as a perceived fever even when the child is fine. In contrast, some children with autism spectrum disorders may also feel cold when others around them are not.

Hyposensitivity may also lead to temperature regulation issues. Some may not feel the temperature differences in their bodies or the weather. This could lead to some children refusing to wear proper seasonal clothing because their bodies don’t recognize the changes.

Ways to help with temperature regulation issues

If your child is experiencing some of these temperature regulation issues, what can you do to help them?

  1. Talk to them – If your child is verbal and can understand your point, you can talk to them about what’s wrong. You can learn why they may be averse to the temperatures and if there is a way to help them without making massive changes.
  2. Maintain optimal temperature – This may be easier said than done. Optimal temperatures vary for everybody, whether they are on the autism spectrum or not. But working together, you and your child can determine if they need a coat and socks or a t-shirt and shorts to maintain an optimal temperature.
  3. Find proper activities – If a child is struggling with temperature regulation, finding the appropriate activity can help them with that regulation. It may require a warmer or cooler activity than you prefer, but it may help your child achieve a level of comfort they couldn’t previously.
  4. Recognizing behavioral changes – When children have a fever, there will be a change in their behavior. This is important because if children have an elevated temperature but still act like they normally do, they may not be sick. They may be experiencing temperature regulation issues.

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Personal experience

Both of my children experience opposite issues with temperature regulation. Both boys have been diagnosed with autism. However, Jeremy prefers the cold, while Joey prefers the heat.

Jeremy hates the summer months because he hates the heat, and sweating doesn’t help him cool off. However, getting him to dress appropriately in the winter takes forever. He is the kid who likes to wear shorts even when it’s too cold outside.

The day before writing this article, it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.67 degrees Celsius) where we live. While he wore khakis to school, he still refused to wear a coat, opting for a light sweater instead. He prefers the cold and always has.

In contrast, Joey needs the heat. He is very happy in the summer and hates going outside in the winter. He also hates cold temperatures for his food.

Over the summer, we went to a campground with a pool, splash pad, and waterslide. All the water was cold, and he was torn between his love of water and his dislike of the cold. In the end, I put him under a hot shower, and he had the best of both worlds.

Even moderately hot showers don’t do the trick with him. He needs them scorching to be at a comfortable temperature. That leads us to another issue of ensuring he doesn’t burn himself because he is averse to both temperature and pain.

Both of their temperature regulation challenges seem to result from sensory issues and lead to us having to react differently for them regarding warm weather, air conditioning, or anything else that affects temperature.

A young boy in winter clothes
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-temperature-regulation/

Importance of recognizing temperature sensitivities

If you are too warm or too cold, it leads to discomfort. This is true of your loved ones with autism as well. While some may be able to communicate this discomfort to you through words, others may be telling you in other ways if they are unable to speak.

Their behavior may change. They may not like the way clothing or sweat feels on their skin despite what the weather may dictate is necessary. Their body may prefer the cold or the warm. But by working together, you and your child can regulate their body temperature and find something comfortable for both you and them.

FAQs

Q: Do autistic people have issues regulating body temperature?

A: Individuals with autism often face challenges regulating their body temperature, exhibiting sensitivities to environmental changes, and difficulties expressing discomfort or recognizing temperature extremes. 

Q: Do autistic people handle heat differently?

A: Autistic individuals may handle heat differently, as they often experience challenges in temperature regulation. Some may be more sensitive or less responsive to heat, impacting their ability to recognize and respond appropriately to temperature changes.

Q: What are people with autism extremely sensitive to?

A: People with autism are often extremely sensitive to sensory stimuli, including light, sound, touch, and temperature. These sensitivities can vary widely among individuals, influencing their reactions to environmental stimuli.

Q: What are common signs that a person with autism may struggle with temperature regulation?

A: Some common indicators of temperature regulation issues in autism include extreme reactions to temperature changes, such as excessive sweating or shivering, resistance to wearing weather-appropriate clothing, or an inability to express discomfort verbally.

Q: How can you create a sensory-friendly environment to aid temperature regulation for autism?

A: To support temperature regulation, it’s essential to provide comfortable clothing options, access to cooling or warming tools, and spaces where individuals can easily regulate their proximity to heat or cool sources. This proactive approach helps minimize sensory challenges related to temperature.

References:

Dunn, Winnie PhD, OTR, FAOTA. The Impact of Sensory Processing Abilities on the Daily Lives of Young Children and Their Families: A Conceptual Model. Infants & Young Children 9(4):p 23-35, April 1997. The Impact of Sensory Processing Abilities on the Daily Live… : Infants & Young Children (lww.com)

Hidaka, S., Gotoh, M., Yamamoto, S. et al. Exploring relationships between autistic traits and body temperature, circadian rhythms, and age. Sci Rep 13, 5888 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-32449-z

Tomchek SD, Dunn W. Sensory processing in children with and without autism: a comparative study using the short sensory profile. Am J Occup Ther. 2007 Mar-Apr;61(2):190-200. doi: 10.5014/ajot.61.2.190. PMID: 17436841.Williams, Z.J., Failla, M.D., Davis, S.L. et al. Thermal Perceptual Thresholds are typical in Autism Spectrum Disorder but Strongly Related to Intra-individual Response Variability. Sci Rep9, 12595 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49103-2

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