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Water: An Autistic Journey

For many Autistic people, there is one sensory input that is calming, focusing or perhaps invigorating. For me, this is water.

I had not spent a lot of time thinking about the connection between water and my Autism until this past August. I was speaking to a group of staff at Ramah Nyack, where I had gone for many years as a camper. The group included the Rosh Mayim (head of the Pools and Aquatic Activities), who asked me about my experience with water. She remarked that I always seemed calm and in my element when I was in the water, and she wanted me to explain how the water felt for me and how it connected back to my Autism. I reflected for a moment and gave an answer, but I have been thinking about it a lot since that night.

One of my biggest sensory challenges is sweat. First, my mother's side has a gene called primary hyperhidrosis, which leads to overactive sweat glands. What may be a normal temperature for one person can feel like a hundred degrees for us, and then we sweat a lot. So what does that mean for me as an Autistic person? It wouldn’t have been a big deal if sweat was not a sensory challenge, but it is, so summers at camp were challenging. Sweating could make me irritable and tired on long summer days. I bet all my counselors remember my complaints about the heat and the sweat that came with it.

The one respite I remember from the oppressive temperatures was swimming. The second I touched the water, I could feel myself relaxing. This made the pool and therefore swimming some of the best times of the day for me. Most kids were ready when they said swim time was up, but I was not. When leaving the pool, I was walking back into a world of heat and discomfort. I would not be fully comfortable until I walked into an air-conditioned car ride home. Even today, there’s nothing I like more than swimming or a cold shower during the summer.

I was on a swim team for two years, and while I loved getting in the water, I didn’t love the competition. It was the act of being in the water that was most soothing, and I didn’t like other things getting in the way of that relaxation.

Reflecting on my experience with the pool led me to think of another interesting habit of mine - drinking cold water. Cold water is my coffee. I might not be able to swim all the time, but I can certainly drink cool water whenever I want. Cold water acts as a stimulant for me, giving me the same comfort of the cool pool and a boost of energy. This applies equally to all seasons. People are always confused by how much cold water I drink in the winter, but this is why. I don’t drink other things and I don’t remember ever trying soda, coffee or juice. I’ve tried tea, but didn’t like it.

Water also helps with my anxiety. As I have explained in my MATAN blogs, my anxiety is a mix of traditional anxiety concerns and ones influenced by my Autism. There are two main types of meltdown scenarios that happen to me; General Anxiety and Sensory Overloads, both of which I have explained before. Taking a shower happens to be one of the best ways to alleviate these overloads.

As I grew older, I moved away from showering in cold water to hot water. I can’t pinpoint when that shift happened or why. Perhaps from habit, or it might be that I started doing this on a cold winter day. Regardless, while I continue to drink primarily cold water, I have discovered that warm water still cools me down, even in hot weather. I don’t know why, but maybe it is because if flushes the sweat off my body? Overall, warm showers have been useful when I am stressed out. If I am having a panic attack at home, I use a shower to unwind. The same thing after a long day at school. I will first relax in my bed, have dinner and then shower. I also shower to reorient myself to a new task. I take short showers periodically throughout the weekend. This helps me switch from task to task.

It wipes my mind and body clear and makes me feel energized for the next thing I am doing.

I always end with a takeaway in my blogs, so what can I give you here? First, even if you are not Autistic, feel free to try these strategies. Second, if you have any connection to an Autistic person (such as a family member or friend or coworker), look out for their sensory struggles. Ask what works for them. Find ways to help support your Autistic friend by being mindful of sensory challenges and find ways to incorporate their solutions into the time you spend together.

The Rosh Mayim reached out a few days later. She was inspired by my presentation. She was mindful of how heat can be difficult for Autistic people and she asked one of the Autistic lifeguards if the heat is a similarly difficult issue. She ended up moving the lifeguard to a shadier position on a hot day, which allowed the lifeguard not only to be more comfortable but more productive. Take the example of the Rosh Mayim. Ask questions. Be creative. Your empathy and inclusion will lead to real results.

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