Tips for Managing Winter Sensory Sensitivities
January 31, 2024
Winter is here – and for autistic people with sensory sensitivities, that may mean increased challenges related to touch, smell, light and sound.
Many cherished winter traditions seem tailor-made to aggravate sensory sensitivities: bundling up to go outside, putting up light displays and ringing bells, to name just a few. Below are tips and information for managing sensory sensitivities during the colder months.
First, a little background: Although many people can have sensory sensitivities, sensory sensitivities and autism frequently occur together. Estimates of the percentage of the autistic population with sensory sensitivities run as high as 90 percent. If you or an autistic family member are dealing with sensory sensitivities, you are not alone. Some of the challenging behaviors that can accompany autism – especially in children – may be directly caused by sensory sensitivities. Managing them is an important part of navigating autism.
For people in colder climates, winter means dropping temperatures, heavier clothes and drier skin. These factors can exacerbate touch sensitivities, making it harder to wear warm clothing like gloves, hats, scarves, or coats. Scratchy, heavy materials commonly used in winter garments can further complicate efforts to keep warm and comfortable. Yet, the need to dress warmly is unavoidable. Here are a few practical tips:
A simple, but underutilized fix for dry skin is cream or ointment. Try applying a small amount of fragrance-free moisturizer to problem areas after handwashing or bathing. Shorter showers or baths, using warm water (instead of hot water) can also help.
Some winter activities such as sledding, ice skating, and playing in the snow can be inherently challenging. Autistic people with sensitivities may struggle with cold wind, fast movement and glare from snow. Others may face difficulties walking on snow or ice and maintaining safe distances from peers. Consider alternative activities such as nature walks or sensory friendly indoor activities and events.
If you are headed to a location where bright lights or loud noises are unavoidable, prepare your autistic family member using their preferred method of communication. Help them understand what to expect, to reduce the chances of a negative reaction. Social stories, visual supports or acting out the activities at home in advance are all methods that can help people with autism get ready to enjoy winter fun.
Supporting an autistic person with sensory sensitivities takes patience and understanding. Embracing their unique needs – and balancing them with the needs of the rest of the family, including your own – will help everyone thrive and enjoy the winter months.
Dr. Doreen Samelson is the chief clinical officer of Catalight, a nonprofit that provides access to innovative individualized care services, clinical research, and advocacy—so people with developmental disabilities can choose their path. Samelson, a licensed clinical psychologist, leads the organization’s behavioral health research team with a focus on promoting the overall well-being of families.