Autism in a heatwave
The UK is currently experiencing 30 degrees a day heatwave. While this is hard for everyone to bear, the heat poses some unique challenges to the autism community.
I wear the same clothes every day. I have three pairs of the same jeans, and lots of the same shirt all in different colours and patterns. My cupboard is piles of the same socks and the same jeans etc. I am extremely limited in how I can alter my clothing in response to weather changes. I can add and remove a hoody (I have three of the same hoody), and I can add and remove a t-shirt under my shirt. My t-shirt under the shirt is a twice-a-year change in which as it gets warmer, I stop wearing it under my shirt, and as it gets colder, I will add it again. I can’t change it day by day; it is a block change thing.
This means that no matter how hot it gets, I am in jeans. No matter how hot it gets, I am in a full-length smart shirt.
My partner and I have had discussions through this heatwave about any changes I could make to try and cool me down as I am struggling in the heat. We tried to pinpoint the parts of the clothes that I can’t change, i.e., is it the collar that I need and could I wear a polo shirt instead. Is it the full-length trousers I need, and could I wear thinner non denim ones instead? Both of these changes fill me with anxiety, and we agreed that given the British weather it wasn’t worth the turmoil of the change as the weather will likely settle down again soon.
I wear the same thing every day and any change to that takes a huge amount of preparation and anxiety. The British weather constantly changing means I have to accept wearing the same thing regardless of the weather. This adds another level of challenge to coping with the heat.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking is generally a challenge for me. The heat adds to that. Firstly, it makes it much more important to be regularly drinking and sustaining my body so it can deal with the heat. As eating and drinking takes processing power from me, this is made harder if I am struggling with something else. If I have gone in a non-verbal state, shutdown, on the edge of meltdown or sensory overload, I am going to really struggle to process eating and drinking. Last year this actually led to me passing out in the heat. The combination of change induced not-drinking and the heat led to a scary situation of passing out on my brother’s floor.
Secondly, the heat actually makes it harder to eat and drink. Most people will probably relate to the feeling of not wanting to eat when you are hot. It’s probably one of the ways to understand the way an autistic mind shuts down processing food because it’s dealing with other things. When you are that hot you often just don’t want to eat. This is magnified for autistic people as we are processing all the sensory differences that the heat brings, and can’t on top of that begin to think about food, let alone preparing it.
Without my partner I would definitely have not eaten for long periods during this heat, and at best eaten toast.
Sensory overload happens when our senses take in too much, with our senses being hyper responsive to input. Add 30 degrees heat as a constant sensory input throughout the day and it is no surprise that autistic people are going to struggle more with sensory issues and sensory overload throughout a heatwave.
I can only wear jeans, yet I feel them hot against my legs. My legs are sweating and the jeans rubbing against them but yet I can only wear jeans. I do something outside and my hands are hot and just feel different. The sun is so bright and everything shining back at me. Surfaces are hot to the touch.
The heatwave brings a completely different sensory world to live in. It comes out of nowhere and changes so much of my sensory input.
For all of the above reasons the heat adds a layer of challenges to autistic life. It makes things harder for everyone. But for autistic people it can remove, or make harder, our ability to function.
Throughout this week I have certainly found communication harder, eating harder, showering harder, getting changed harder and so much more. While most people will be tired and fed up with the heat, autistic people start to lose essential functional ability.
I’ve almost hit meltdown most nights in this heat. I’ve gone on the edge of non-verbal and struggled far more to talk to my partner. All the struggles that I usually face after a hard day, are there every day in the heatwave. My resilience to every day things is so much lower because it is taking so much out of me to just deal with the heat.
Autistic people don’t have the same resilience as others for this heatwave. While non-autistic people might get tired and grumpy, I get tired, go non-verbal and struggle to not hit meltdown. It affects us in different ways to most.
Based on the above challenges here are a few bits of advice for supporting us through the heat:
- Don’t push us to change our clothes. If we can’t change our clothes, then we can’t. Instead focus on working with those clothes and cooling us down in other ways. I’ve been using fans, sitting outside in the shade etc.
- Check we are drinking. Please monitor your autistic loved one’s drink intake. It is so easy for us to forget to eat and drink and in the heatwave that is dangerous. Send a text to your autistic friend, remind your child or sibling, just nudge us to keep drinking.
- Work with autism. There is no point going head-to-head with autistic barriers. If we can only drink out of one cup, then make sure that cup is taken everywhere at the moment. My partner got me a Harry Potter water bottle for my birthday, and it made me wonder if I could have drunk out of it last year when I was struggling with change and being in different houses. Use our special interests, think outside the box and work with our autistic challenges to keep us safe.
- Have patience with us. The hardest time to be autistic is when we face the same exterior challenges as others, but it poses different hurdles for us. Everyone is struggling with the heat, I realise that. But it raises unique challenges for an autistic person and it will make things much harder for us until it settles. I know it is asking a lot in the heat but please try and have patience and understanding with your autistic loved ones who are struggling to function in this heat.
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