Sensory Series – Thermoception

Introduction to Thermoception

Sensory

As I said in the Interoception post – there is some overlap between this sense and that one. After all, the sensing of temperature is a part of internal sensing and the research on Thermoception within humans is still in the early stages of research, never mind with a specific focus on autism.

So why include it as a separate post? Well mostly because the difficulties in thermoception can manifest in a number of ways, and some of these can potentially lead to dangerous situations, so I thought a post focusing on the area was worthwhile.

Within humans there is a sensor for detecting heat, and a sensor for detecting cold. Now whilst it is, once again, simplistic to discuss these in terms of hyper- and hypo- sensitivity, these are useful starting points. An individual may have hyper or hypo sensitivities to either heat detection or cold detection, to both, or one hyper and one hypo. So to break that down into something observable:

Heat

Hypersensitive

  • Will not approach heat sources – e.g radiators, fireplaces, or even pavements or walls warmed by the sun.
  • Will often refuse to wearing clothes, or strip off their clothes.
  • Will not wear a coat or jacket in cooler weather.
  • Will only eat cold foods.
  • Does not like going outside during hot weather.
  • Will seek out fans or sources of cool during even slightly hotter weather.
  • Verbal complaints of being “too hot” even during milder weathers.

Hyposensitive

  • Will seek out heat sources – approaching fireplaces or radiators. May move clothing so they can press body parts to the radiator.
  • May touch naked flames or open oven doors to get the “rush” of heat from doing so.
  • Will want their food to be piping hot before they eat it.
  • May insist on adding more hot water to a bath, or increasing the heat on a shower.

 

Cold

Hypersensitive

  • Wears multiple layers of clothing, may insist on wearing heavy or hot clothing during warmer periods.
  • Will not approach sources of cold – e.g go near the freezer, touch ice-cubes, or even cold water.
  • Will not eat cold foods such as ice-cream or lollies, or drink cooled drinks.
  • Verbals complaints of being cold, despite weather seeming mild to others.
  • Will want to sit next to heat sources.
  • Reluctant to go outside during colder weather.

Hyposensitive

  • Will wear clothing that seems inappropriate for the weather e.g shorts and t-shirts in snowy conditions.
  • Will play in cold conditions or with cold sources such as ice cubes or icy water for prolonged periods, even beyond their hands going red or blue with the cold.
  • May not notice that food is inappropriately cold and so inedible – e.g if it’s in the process of being defrosted.
  • Will not wear a coat or jacket in cooler weather.

 

As I’m certain many of you will have deduced from the scanning the list of suggested indicators of a disruption to thermoception, many of the things on these lists might also be indicative of other sensory processing differences. Tactile and gustatory are two of the main senses that may result in observable behaviour from the lists above, and so differentiating the differences in the senses may become very difficult. However, it is possible to make educated reasonings. For example, if a person shows absolutely no other signs of tactile hypersensitivity and yet every time winter comes around they won’t wear a coat, then you might want to consider the possibility that they are hyposensitive to cold and just don’t understand why they would need to wear a coat – after all they don’t feel cold.

This is a relatively new area of research, particularly in the field of autism, but hopefully new information will be forthcoming as the research progresses.

One comment

  1. My son is 23 and at the high end of the spectrum. As was called low functioning. He’s a combination of hyper and hypo sensitive. Depending. Such as iron on patches on T’s. If it’s embroidered it’s fine but the iron on he doesn’t like at all. Heat he’s not sensitive to very much in water — but won’t go near the cooktop when it’s being used (it’s gas). I have for many years referred to my son as having a multiple0-sensory-disorder. That best describes it. Good post – thanks!

    Like

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