Many of us experience changes in mood as the sunlight hours and temperature changes with each season but for people with difficulties with sensory integration or processing (and co-existing diagnoses such as Autism Spectrum Disorder) the transition from one season to the next can present particular challenges. This article considers what those challenges are and how to manage them.
Changes in Daylight Hours
Some individuals appear to be particularly affected by the reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says around 3% of people will experience significant winter depression and recommend ensuring adequate exposure to daylight by, for example, taking a daily walk outside.
For children, you could create a social story (a step-by-step pictorial explanation) to discuss the change in daylight hours and any associated change in routine.
Changes in Temperature
Sensory integration and processing difficulties relate to problems with organising and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Individuals may be over sensitive to sensory input, under sensitive, or both. People with difficulties with interoception (the sense of the internal state of the body) can be slower to notice when they are getting too warm or too cold - until they are very hot or shivering cold. Older children and adults may find it helpful to base their clothing choices on the actual temperature rather than their perception of it. Apps on smart devices can keep you informed about the current and forecasted weather and temperature.
Changes in Clothing
Individuals with sensory sensitivities can struggle with moving on from the previous season’s clothes that they have become habituated to. It can take a while to become accustomed to different clothes, even those ones worn the previous year. The shift from lighter layers in the warmer months to heavier, thicker, more restrictive winter clothing and additional items, such as hats and gloves, can be taxing.
For children with sensory sensitivities, introduce the new season’s clothes early: let them feel and practice putting them on and off before they need to be worn. Introduce heavier, waterproof footwear in short bursts. If new items need to be purchased, involve your child in choosing the items and respect their views: what is soft to you may feel scratchy to them. Many people with sensory sensitivities prefer softer fabrics, such as fleeces, and find it easier to wear multiple thinner layers than a single thick layer but it all depends on the individual’s preference - some individuals prefer the pressure of tight, snug-fitting clothing.
New clothes can be washed prior to wearing to remove unfamiliar scents and to soften them. Completely remove labels which can be distracting irritants. Changes in clothing type can also present challenges in dressing for children with difficulties with fine motor skills and praxis. Practise these skills and make accommodations where appropriate, for example, poppers instead of buttons, velcro instead of laces, loose clothing that can easily be slipped on and off, etc. Some shops have ranges specific to people with sensory needs with clothing that has easier fastenings and no seams or tags.
Be flexible and creative: if gloves or mittens cannot be tolerated, could the individual pull down their sleeves enough to cover their hands? If a hat is out of the question, experiment with ear muffs or ear defenders. Can a large hoodie be worn if a thick coat is uncomfortable?
Changes in Routine
The unpredictability of weather in Autumn and Spring (or just the whole year if you live in the UK!) requires a lot more planning ahead when considering what clothes and shoes to wear, whether to carry additional layers etc. It adds to the cognitive load on an individual. Daily routines can help. For example, the night before check the weather forecast for the following day and pick out suitable clothing (with input from your child if choosing for a child). Ensure there is plenty of time built in to the morning routine for getting dressed to reduce the stress of time-pressures. Some children find a picture chart of what to wear and in what order to get dressed useful.
Likewise, a familiar bedtime routine can help shift the individual into the right state for going to sleep. If bedtimes need to change with the seasons, introduce the change gradually: for example, 15 minutes earlier for a week at a time.
Recognise that an individual may be tired from coping all day with all the changes that accompany seasonal transition. Work with your qualified sensory integration therapist to introduce sensory activities that calm and soothe.