Getting my son to wear a coat in the winter takes an act of Congress, regardless of the frigid outside temperatures. I used to think he was lazy, or perhaps that the material of the coat bothered him (he has a multitude of sensory processing issues and I often have to make sure his shirts are tagless and socks are seamless). Yet, here we are in the midst of an Atlanta summer and for some reason he prefers turtlenecks and heavy sweatpants, despite the array of shorts and t-shirts he owns. What’s going on?
In addition to sensory overwhelm and sensitivity to sounds, lights, smells, and textures, many people on the autism spectrum also have difficulty with temperature regulation.
How does temperature regulation work?
Aspie writer Jeannie Davide-Rivera describes it perfectly as:
…an automated body system that regulates the body’s core temperature in response to outside stimuli. The temperature of the body is regulated by neural feedback mechanisms in the brain, which operate primarily through the hypothalamus. It has the remarkable capacity for regulating the body’s core temperature that keeps your body temperature somewhere between 98F and 100F. When your body is exposed to heat or cold conditions this system balances your internal temperature with the temperature outside.
Why is this an issue for emergency responders?
When you interact with an autistic person that may be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to heat or cold, it creates several issues. First off, recognizing temperature regulation issues in a patient can be tricky. Picture someone peeling off their clothing in the dead of winter, in the face of freezing weather (yes, it DOES get cold in the south!).
What about someone on the playground wearing several layers of clothing when it’s 96 degrees outside? It looks rather suspicious. What’s the first thing you would think as an emergency responder? Drugs? Mental illness?
Children AND adults with autism may not feel or experience temperatures the same way we do. They’re acting out what feels natural to them because of temperature regulation issues. Additionally, medical conditions and medications can interfere with the body’s ability to cool itself or to maintain a fluid/electrolyte balance. Couple this with impaired communication and decreased body awareness, and you may witness someone going downhill quickly with no obvious cause.
As we are dealing with these ‘Hotlanta’ wet blanket days right now, hyperthermia is a huge risk. It’s important to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke as rapidly as possible and start treatment right away, regardless of how a patient is dressed or how “disconnected” from our logical, neurotypical world they may seem.
Symptoms to look out for:
- NOT SWEATING
- Red, hot, dry skin
- An extremely high body temperature (above 103°F)
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid and unusually strong pulse
- Shallow, noisy breathing
- Dizziness or confusion
- Nausea, with or without vomiting
Be aware of comorbid medical conditions when treating an autistic patient. There are many conditions that present with autism spectrum disorders such as epilepsy/seizure disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, bowel disease, immune disorders, OCD, Tourette syndrome, sleep disorders and more.