As the temperature over the weekend plummeted to minus 3 degrees here in the UK, my sensory distress rose simultaneously. When it gets cold, my skin prickles. I am aware that I am cold but cannot abide long sleeves or itchy fabrics. I’ve always had acute intolerance of clothing, it was one of the markers that assisted me in gaining my autism diagnosis, and as a result I much prefer a warmer temperature where I can wear as little clothing as possible. This is the only negative about winter for me, when it snows I am delighted – a thick snowy blanket is perfect for covering visual clutter, and watching flurries of snowfall is mesmerising in a very stimmy way.
But, this recent snowfall did get me considering how different types of weather impacts upon me and my (autistic) children in a sensory way. And, how over the years, we have come up with different strategies to combat any discomfort suffered.
1. The cold and clothing.
For those with hypersensitivity to fabrics like me, you do not necessarily need to be wearing thick or woollen clothing to stay warm. I don’t really change over to different, winter clothing but layer my familiar cotton clothing together. This can also work well if there are parts of your body that you cannot bear to cover (arms and neck for me!). I layer clothing on the sections of my body I can cope with (leggings under linen trousers and vests under t-shirts for example), rather than force myself into the discomfort of a jumper or cardigan. I think we are really lucky to have so many different fabric types to choose from now. Long gone are the days of having to tolerate hand-knitted jumpers.
As I have become older, I have realised that much of my winter discomfort has been around having central heating on. It seems to dry out my skin, which in turn increases my aversion to clothing. Rather than setting my thermostat to regulate the heating, I find that interspersing an hour of heat with an hour of none, really helps me to tolerate the artificial climate.
2. Snow and brightness.
While a snowy blanket can be wonderful for the soul, the starkness of an all-white expanse can be painfully bright to those with more sensitive eyesight. My eldest son has extremely sharp sight but struggles with any expanse that reflects light – snow, sand, water. When we realised that it was this that was causing him distress on snowy days, the solution was straightforward – sunglasses.
With any sensory issue, tolerance will be determined by your level of sensitivity to it. My youngest son is typically more hypo-sensitive to stimuli and often seeks out specific stimuli in order to feel good – wind is one of these pleasurable experiences for him. He loves the pressure and the exhilaration. My eldest son cannot abide wind – it causes him great pain and discomfort, particularly to his ears and hearing. (Again, his hearing is acutely hypersensitive.) When he was younger, ear muffs were perfect, but then there became a time when he felt self-conscious about wearing them. For us, the answer was in acquiring a “deerstalker” hat – a hat with ear flaps.
My aversions to rain are around rain dripping onto my neck, or my clothes becoming sodden, clingy and then warming back up again. I’m cringing just thinking about it. My eldest son shares my intolerance of wet, clingy clothes touching his skin. (Just for reference, my youngest son likes splashing in any type of water fully clothed!) Logically, the solution for us would be to wear adequate waterproof clothing but much clothing that is designed for rain, is rigid and constrictive (which can be exceptionally intolerable for skin that is hypersensitive). Many types of waterproof clothing have been chemically treated which can often leave a repulsive smell (if you are hypersensitive to such things).
A giant umbrella can be preferable, as long as you have the ability to hold one for lengthy periods of time. (Warning – carrying a large umbrella often entices other people to want to huddle underneath with you – if you require a lot of personal space, this might not be the best option.)
5. Thunder and lightning.
Very, very frightening. Well, yes, it can be. It’s unpredictable, surprising and as such, can startle people “an intolerance to uncertainty”. It can also be very loud, with a frequency that triggers a flight response. Similar to fireworks, the decibel levels and sporadic nature of the noise can really unsettle an autistic person. Ear defenders can be useful, as can counting the time in-between booms (as this helps to lessen the unpredictability). Weighted blankets can offer reassurance, as can creating a den under a table or in a cupboard.
The effects of humidity upon the body are largely; discomfort at feeling sticky, difficulties breathing deeply, and head pressure. An autistic person may feel all of these in an extremely intense way, making it both painful and difficult to concentrate upon anything else. Cool packs applied to the head, chest and wrists can help – as well as alleviating the feeling of “sticky”, a little weighted pressure can help emotional regulation (breathing issues are always exacerbated through panic, so trying to stay calm really helps). On really humid days, changing location can be the easiest and quickest way to alleviate distress. A trip to your local wood, or hill could bring some much needed temporary relief during a humid day.
7. Heat and sunshine.
For someone who is predominantly hypersensitive to stimuli, heat may quickly overcome them. For those who have a tendency to be hypo-sensitive, the effects of heat may not be easy for them to recognise. Having one son who is hypersensitive and one who is hypo-sensitive I have found that scheduled timekeeping is the best way to ensure that they both stay safe in the heat. For example, playing outside for half an hour is followed by half an hour indoors.
The application of suncream is notoriously horrible for my family, with the cream based lotions being far too greasy for tolerating. Especially if needing to wear clothes alongside – a hem that is “contaminated” with suncream feels different (heavier and stickier) and can feel like a slap everytime it touches against the skin. The invention of sun protection in a spray has been revolutionary for my family – much lighter, and much more tolerable. If this is still too unbearable, I have known some parents to invest in UV protection clothing.
For me, as a child, I found most things sensorially distressing. As I have got older, some of the distress has lessened and I have been able to tolerate a wider range of clothing, for instance. But what makes it much easier for me as an adult, is being able to make choices regarding clothing etc for myself. I struggled to explain why I couldn’t abide long sleeves when I was younger (I may not have even made the connection myself) and so was often mistaken as being “fussy” or “difficult”. Overall, taking a creative approach and testing different solutions can help when sensory distress is high.