Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) stands out as a complexity within the interwoven threads of our…
Many people on the autism spectrum report differences in how they regulate body temperature. Some say they have more difficulty maintaining a comfortable temperature or get overheated more easily than neurotypical people.
In this blog, we’ll dive into the research on do autistic people regulate heat differently and explore what science says about temperature regulation in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Studies Confirm Slightly Elevated Core Temperature
Several studies have uncovered evidence that people with ASD tend to have slightly higher core body temperatures compared to neurotypical controls.
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders measured the body temperature of 60 autistic children and adolescents and compared them to 60 non-autistic controls. They found core temperatures were about 0.27°F higher on average in the ASD group throughout the day and night.
Additional research has replicated these findings, including a 2019 study from Yale University involving 82 autistic people. This study also found average core body temperatures in the ASD group skewed 0.18-0.64°F higher than neurotypical participants.
While the temperature differences are small, they are consistent across multiple studies and potentially clinically significant.
Explaining the Underlying Causes
Scientists have proposed several theories to explain the atypical temperature regulation patterns seen in autism:
Autonomic nervous system differences – The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions like breathing, heart rate, and perspiration. Some studies using skin conductance measurements have found abnormal sympathetic arousal and parasympathetic activity in those with ASD. Dysregulation in the autonomic system can negatively impact the body’s ability to cool itself effectively.
Disrupted circadian rhythms – Many people on the spectrum have irregular sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. These circadian differences could contribute to disturbances in thermoregulation, as core body temperature follows a natural circadian pattern over 24 hours.
Elevated metabolic rate – Indirect calorimetry studies have shown people with ASD tend to have slightly higher resting energy expenditures and metabolic rates. A persistently ramped-up metabolism results in increased internal heat production.
Medication side effects – Certain medications used to treat ASD-associated symptoms can interfere with heat dissipation. These include stimulants, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.
Sensory sensitivities – Heightened or reduced sensitivity to external temperature in some people on the spectrum may also play a role.
These small but significant differences in internal temperature set points and regulation capacities could have health and safety implications.
Elevated core body temperature combined with impaired thermal regulation puts some autistic people at increased risk of heat-related illnesses like hyperthermia, which requires rapid treatment when body temperature exceeds 104°F.
Monitoring autistic people closely for signs of overheating like fatigue, headache, nausea, and rapid breathing/heart rate is important, especially in hot weather. Caregivers should know how to support healthy temperature regulation through cooling techniques.
Supporting Comfortable Regulation
Making some simple adjustments can help autistic people maintain a safer and more comfortable body temperature:
- Use air conditioning and fans to cool rooms and vehicles on hot days.
- Encourage hydration and access to cool water.
- Choose breathable, lightweight clothing options.
- Avoid extended time outdoors during peak heat.
- Take cooling showers or baths when overheated.
- Use cooling accessories like gel packs, cooling vests, or bandanas.
- Provide a balance of warmer and cooler environments.
- Watch closely for signs of hyperthermia and seek medical care if needed.
With the right supports informed by the science, autistic people can stay healthier and more comfortable despite differences in body temperature regulation capacities.
While more research is still needed, current evidence clearly suggests autistic people do regulate body heat somewhat differently compared to neurotypical people. Small average differences in core temperature set points combined with circadian, metabolic, and autonomic nervous system variations can make temperature regulation more challenging.
Knowledge of these patterns and individualized supports are key for improving health and quality of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
In this section we answer your questions about how autistic people regulate heat.
Do autistic people regulate heat differently?
Yes, there is evidence to suggest that autistic people may regulate heat differently. Temperature regulation can vary among people with autism, and sensory processing differences and other factors can contribute to variations in their ability to maintain a comfortable body temperature.
What are thermoregulatory issues in autism?
Thermoregulatory issues in autism refer to difficulties in regulating body temperature. Some autistic people may have challenges with heat sensitivity or have difficulty maintaining a consistent body temperature in different environments.
Is there a link between autism and heat sensitivity?
Yes, there is a connection between autism and heat sensitivity. Some autistic people may exhibit heightened sensitivity to heat, which can impact their well-being and daily functioning. Sensory processing differences may play a role in this heightened sensitivity.
What factors influence heat regulation in autistic people?
Several factors can influence heat regulation in autistic people. Co-occurring conditions, such as sensory processing differences and gastrointestinal issues, can impact their ability to regulate body temperature. Additionally, medication and environmental factors can also play a role.
What are the challenges and implications of heat regulation in autism?
Heat regulation challenges in autism can have significant implications for daily life. Autistic people may struggle to maintain a comfortable body temperature, which can affect their overall well-being. Understanding heat tolerance in autism is crucial for providing appropriate support.
How can we support heat regulation in autism?
There are strategies for supporting heat regulation in autistic people. Creating a sensory-friendly environment, promoting hydration, and utilizing cooling techniques can help ensure their comfort in different temperatures. Education and awareness also play a role in supporting their unique heat regulation needs.
What is the current research on temperature regulation and autism?
Current research focuses on understanding temperature regulation differences in autism. Further investigation is needed to fully comprehend the underlying mechanisms. Future studies may explore targeted interventions to support the unique heat regulation needs of autistic people.