Sensitivity to Temperature: When Your Child Won't Wear a Coat

Health Writer

You can always tell who my son is. He is the one standing outside in 20 degree temperature in shorts and a t-shirt. He will tell you he isn't cold. For a long time I argued with him, insisting he wear a coat but as he got older, those arguments became less and less frequent. It isn't that I stopped caring whether he gets frostbite, of course, I do. But it is because I have come to accept that he doesn't have the same internal regulation of temperature as I do.

During the summer months, my son is extremely uncomfortable. He hates the heat. He feels sick, won't do anything, and becomes irritable. During the winter, he sleeps with the air conditioner on in his room. He rarely wears a coat. He never wears a hat and only wears gloves when he is shoveling snow.

For many children with autism and Asperger's syndrome (AS), hypersensitivities have a large impact on their lives. Many are hypersensitive to touch; disliking to be hugged, wearing only certain clothes. Others are sensitive to food; eating only certain colors, textures or tastes. Some find loud noises intolerable. Others, like my son, simply don't regulate temperature and may be hypo-sensitive (such as my son is to cold) or hypersensitive to changes in temperature.

I know I am not alone. A search on the internet gives way to dozens of questions from parents on what to do when their child refuses to wear a coat during the winter months. The following are some suggestions on how to handle this:

Set specific rules. Children with AS usually follow rules. Decide when a coat is necessary, for example, in my house, my son must wear a coat if the temperature is below 30 degrees, if he is shoveling snow or if he will be outside for an extended period of time (more than one hour.) I don't normally have to argue with him because he will check the temperature to see if he needs to wear a coat to school each morning.

Make sure his or her coat is comfortable. Your child may not want to wear a coat or jacket because of sensitivities to touch, not temperature. He may feel the coat is restricting, itchy, bulky or just plain uncomfortable. Today's styles include many sweatshirt coats which are much more comfortable than traditional coats. Help your child choose a coat or jacket he feels comfortable in. Some parents, especially in very cold areas, insist on a hat and gloves below a certain temperature as well.

Address sensory issues rather than the coat itself. If hypersensitivities are causing a problem, address this issue with your child's doctor and talk about occupational therapy to help address the issue.

Be understanding. Rather than allowing the issue to become a power struggle between you and your child, let him know you understand. Say things such as, "I know your coat is uncomfortable to you..." or "I know it doesn't seem cold to you today..." to help deflect some of the attitude that goes along with demanding he wear a coat. Your child may be more apt to accept your rules if he feels his point of view is understood and respected.

Find out the rules for your school. Many elementary schools will not allow children to go to recess without a coat if the temperature is below a certain number. If your child is in elementary school, find out if your school has such a rule and explain to your child that he won't be allowed to go to recess if he doesn't wear his coat. If it is a big struggle or if he often forgets and heads out the door without his coat, buy an extra sweatshirt jacket to keep at school so he won't miss recess. If your school doesn't have such a rule in place, share your rules with your child's teacher (if temperature is below XX, he must wear his coat.)

Remember, choose your battles. Once you have covered any safety issues, decide whether arguing about wearing a coat or jacket is really worth the frustration it is sure to bring.

For more information:

8 Tips for Helping Teens with Autism Manage Anger and Frustration