Are autistic people affected differently by hot weather?

I’ll be honest, even though I grew up in Paarl, I’ll never get used to really hot weather. The long sleepless nights, covering your bed in wet towels while it’s still 35 degrees outside – an experience I don't want to relive.

How do other autistic people experience the hot weather this time of year? Are we affected differently?

Challenges for autistic people in hot weather

Autistic people face multiple challenges during heat waves. They may have difficulty understanding why they need to wear a hat, coat, or sunscreen. They may struggle with finding comfortable places to sit or lie down, and they may find it difficult to keep themselves cool and safe.

Some autistic people suffer from hyperthermia (overheating) and hypothermia (underheating). This means they don’t always respond well to changes in temperature.

When you experience hyperthermia, it will make high temperature, sticky clothing or even the sensation of sweat on the skin far more unsettling than for others. This increased sensory input results in higher anxiety levels and may even increase the risk of a meltdown. This is complicated further because the texture of sunscreen can also be distressing for autistic people.

Hot weather also carries different risks for hyposensitive autistic people (those with decreased sensory response) - someone who can tolerate high temperatures and may find it harder to identify the signs of dehydration or sunburn.

A 2015 study published in The Journal of PainDecreased Sensitivity to Thermal Stimuli in Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder, found that "some adolescents with ASD demonstrate a profile of decreased thermal sensitivity."


The risk of Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a medical emergency that arises from a combination of factors such as high temperatures, humidity, dehydration, and physical activity. Its symptoms include confusion, rapid heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, headache, and a dangerously high body temperature. Left untreated, heat stroke can lead to severe complications, including organ damage, seizures, and even death.

Due to hyposensitivity and alexithymia, some autistic people may not notice the signs of heat wave related health problems. Aside from thirst and feeling too hot, there are other physical signs to look out for. Headaches, fatigues, faster heart rate and breathing are all signs of dehydration and heat stroke.

According to Neural Balance, individuals with autism face unique challenges related to sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, and routine disruptions. These challenges can intersect with the dangers of heat stroke in several ways:

Sensory Sensitivities: Many individuals with autism experience heightened sensory sensitivities, which can make extreme temperatures even more distressing. The sensation of intense heat might be overwhelming for some, potentially leading to discomfort and agitation.

Communication Challenges: Communication difficulties are common among those with autism. Expressing discomfort due to temperature changes might be challenging, making it vital for caregivers and those around them to be vigilant for non-verbal cues.

Routine Disruption: Individuals with autism often thrive on routine and predictability. Sudden shifts in their environment, such as a heat wave, can cause distress due to the disruption of their familiar routines.

Does barometric pressure affect us?

Barometric pressure affects everyone differently. For autistic people, it can trigger meltdowns. Here’s how barometric pressure works:

When the air gets warmer, it expands. The amount of expansion depends on the density of the air. Air becomes denser when it rises. When the air gets cooler, it contracts. The amount of contraction depends on the density of air. As the air gets colder, it shrinks. When the air gets denser, it exerts more force on objects. That’s why we feel heavier when it is raining.

Research has found that autists are particularly susceptible to drops in atmospheric/barometric pressure i.e. the weight of air pressing down on us from the earth’s atmosphere. When pressure is high, we have dry, sunny weather; when pressure is low, rain and dark clouds. This drop in pressure results in a drop in blood oxygen levels. Consequently, the body adjusts heart rate and blood pressure to adapt to these changes which can interfere with brain activity. This often leads to mood swings, increased impulsivity and autists are more likely to indulge in destructive behaviours (especially for those with ADHD).


Coping with hot weather

How can individuals with autism spectrum disorder cope with hot weather? According to the Autism Spectrum Blog, some suggestions for coping with heat are:

1. Find ways to reduce sensory stimulation.
When you go outside, try wearing sunglasses and earplugs. Cover yourself with a light blanket if you feel uncomfortable and keep the windows closed.

2. Reduce physical activity levels.
Stay active but limit physical activities such as running around or playing sports. Instead, choose indoor games like board games, puzzles, or card games.

3. Take breaks.
Take frequent breaks from outdoor activities. Find a place where you can sit down and rest.

4. Stay hydrated.
Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.

5. Try cooling lotions.
Cooling lotions can reduce the levels of sensory input and therefore help ease stress in an individual with an autism spectrum disorder.


The Sunshine Room Educational Blog also suggests the following:

1. Dress Appropriately: 
Encourage your child to wear loose, lightweight clothing made from breathable fabrics, such as cotton or linen. Opt for lighter colours that reflect sunlight and minimize heat absorption. Sun hats and sunglasses can provide additional protection, though for some children this may be distressing as it is additional sensory input. For some children, they can really struggle not wearing their full school uniform each day, including jumpers, ties, etc. Where possible, encourage them to at least take parts of their uniform off, but if they really won't take anything off, keep a particular close eye on them during outside play.

2. Hydration is Key:
Ensure children stay hydrated by offering them water frequently throughout the day. Encourage them to drink even if they don't feel thirsty. Consider using a water bottle with markings to track their intake. You can also include flavoured water or natural fruit-infused drinks to make it more appealing.

3. Seek Shade and Cool Spaces: 
Identify cool areas where your child can take refuge during the hottest parts of the day. Set up shaded outdoor spaces or consider using sunshades and umbrellas. Indoors, create a cool environment using fans or air conditioning. This helps prevent overheating and minimizes discomfort.

4. Water Play and Cooling Activities:
Engage children in water-based activities as a fun way to stay cool. Set up a paddling pool, water sprinkler, or water balloon games in a shaded area. This can provide sensory stimulation while keeping them refreshed. Incorporate other cooling activities such as sensory bins with ice or frozen toys.

5. Sunscreen and Sun Protection:
Protect your child's skin from harmful UV rays by applying sunscreen with a high SPF. Choose a sunscreen that is suitable for their specific sensitivities, such as fragrance-free or hypoallergenic options. Children often don't like having sun cream applied, so try using this amazing sun cream applicator which children apparently love to use and saves the tears and meltdowns. Teach them about the importance of staying in the shade and wearing a hat and sunglasses when outdoors.

6. Adjust Daily Routine:
During exceptionally hot days, consider modifying children's daily routine. Opt for outdoor activities in the cooler mornings or evenings when the temperatures are lower. Adjust meal times to avoid cooking in a hot kitchen. Offer lighter meals that include lots of hydrating fruits and vegetables.

7. Communicate and Prepare:
Prepare your child in advance for changes in routine caused by the heatwave. Use visual schedules or social stories to help them understand and cope with any alterations to their usual activities. Provide clear and concise explanations about the weather, plans for the day, and any necessary adaptations.


We are lucky enough to have a swimming pool, so we spend most of our summers in the water (also have a look at our blog post about anxiety and the dive reflex). But, as with all aspects of managing our autistic lives, the secret is probably in planning and preparation. If we plan for hot weather, we can easily manage it.


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