Common Autism Clothing Issues: Managing Clothing Sensitivity
9 strategies for dressing your child with autism
Tying your shoes. Using the bathroom. Saying “please” and “thank you.”
Parents teach children essential life skills to prepare them for the world. However, when your child is autistic, teaching these skills takes even more time and patience.
One activity that can be stress-inducing for parents and children alike is getting dressed (and staying dressed).
Many autism clothing issues stem from hypersensitivity, resistance to change, and lack of awareness in public settings. Parents can help children with autism by purchasing comfortable clothing, establishing a routine, and teaching social dressing norms.
What are sensory clothing issues?
For people on the autism spectrum, clothing issues are rooted in the senses. According to the DSM-5, a key trait of autistic people is their “Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.”
A hypersensitive child overreacts to tactile input.
Example: After putting a sweater on with a tag, a child with autism has a meltdown.
A hyposensitive child underreacts to or seeks out tactile input.
Example: A child touches other people to the point of causing harm (squeezing too tightly, hitting, etc.).
If your autistic child fixates on a piece of clothing or avoids certain clothes altogether, they might have a clothing sensitivity disorder. You can address this disorder in several ways.
Strategies for dressing a child with autism
Developing a functional dressing and undressing routine takes time and flexibility. I will share specific strategies you can use to help.
1. Keep a clothing journal
Every child, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, is different and unique. Something that works for one child with autism might not work for another. So, prepare to enter a trial-and-error period, noting what your child likes and dislikes.
Over time, you should see patterns emerging. If your child prefers a particular texture, material, brand, fit, or color, you can begin to incorporate these clothes more and more.
2. Inspect clothing
Make sure to thoroughly inspect all clothing before giving it to your child with autism. Look to remove sneaky tags, loose strings, elastic bands, and other irritants.
3. Purchase a suitable fabric and detergent
- Choose high-quality fabrics like washed denim, cotton, silk, cashmere, merino wool, and linen.
- You want breathable, moisture-wicking, natural, soft, and pre-washed materials.
- Wash clothes in a scentless, non-irritating detergent without dyes or perfumes.
- Avoid fabric softeners or dryer sheets because they can cause rough fabric pilling.
4. Provide your child with choices
You can reduce anxiety and improve sensory tolerance by providing limited choices (for example, between two appropriate outfits).
- Consider using a visual menu of clothing options with rewards for appropriate decisions.
- If your child is verbal, you can ask them what clothes they like.
- If your child is non-verbal, you can try developing “yes” and “no” gestures to establish what the child enjoys wearing.
5. Layer clothes
Many people with autism prefer long sleeves and pants because they do not want exposed skin. Breathable, layer-friendly clothing will allow them to remain comfortable without overheating.
Additionally, comfy undershirts can create a barrier between the skin and irritating seams, buttons, or zippers.
6. Improvise with fasteners
- Try replacing buttons and zippers with velcro if your child lacks fine motor skills.
- You can also avoid clothes with fasteners, period. Instead, opt for simpler pull-on garments.
7. Plan for changing weather
- Try letting your child dress how they want in the morning. Then, pack extra clothes to prepare for the changing weather.
- Avoid rapidly changing the entire wardrobe when the weather changes. Instead, start to incorporate the next season’s clothes slowly over time.
8. Teach social dressing norms explicitly
- You can do this by pointing out how others dress in public.
- Consider using a sticker chart to reward your child when they dress appropriately (and stay dressed).
9. Purchase duplicates of clothes
- You can replace old articles with extras you’ve already purchased if clothing wears out.
- Additionally, you can buy clothes in incremental half sizes so they can continue to grow with the clothes they love.
Autism and undressing in public
If your child with autism is taking clothes off in public, it can be very alarming. There are a few main reasons your child might undress in public.
- They are wearing the wrong clothes. A child might remove clothes if they are wearing something irritating or ill-fitting.
- They cannot communicate when uncomfortable. The child might need help understanding how to appropriately articulate why they are distressed. If a child cannot explain why they are uncomfortable, they might resort to removing clothes instead.
- They are unaware of emotional or social cues. People with autism might undress in public because they do not understand social expectations for attire. If they get uncomfortable, they could be unaware that taking off their clothes is not an acceptable response.
Pitfalls to avoid: autism and clothing
People with clothing sensitivities might react negatively if:
- The material is wrong. Materials cause problems if they are too scratchy or stiff. Irritating fabrics include acrylic, cheaper wool, rougher velvet, low-quality denim, polyester, rayon, microfiber, and synthetic materials.
- Tags touch the skin. Tags, or even small pieces of a label, can scratch against the skin and cause distress.
- There are zippers or buttons. These fasteners can press directly against the skin, causing an adverse reaction.
- The fit isn’t right. Clothing that hangs too loose or is too restrictive can increase anxiety. Also, if a waistband or elastic hugs the skin too tightly, it can feel suffocating.
- The child has allergies to a detergent or material. Certain fabrics, textures, and harsh chemical detergents can cause rashes or other irritating effects on the skin.
- The pattern is unfamiliar or disliked. Depending on the child, specific or new patterns can cause significant discomfort.
- There is a sudden wardrobe change. Resistance to change through repetitive behavior is elevated in children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Quickly changing wardrobe pieces (style, color, texture, or brand) could lead to a meltdown.
How to establish a dressing routine
Predictable routines are soothing for people with autism clothing issues and can reduce anxiety. When establishing a routine, try to take your time with the process. If possible, allocate extra time just for getting dressed.
Here are some methods to develop positive clothing habits:
The night before
First, try letting your child pick an outfit the night before. By doing this, your child can mentally prepare for the dressing routine the following day.
Also, ensure that your child is getting a good night’s sleep. You can promote a good night’s rest by providing comfortable pajamas, high-quality sheets, and a weighted blanket.
Consider starting the day with heavy work or deep touch pressure. Both activities involve putting pressure on the body to reduce feelings of anxiety. These exercises can wake up the body, calm a child, and engage proprioception (body awareness) so they can dress easier.
When dressing, begin at the child’s preferred location. For example, if your child is more comfortable putting on their shirt first, let them. One small success can lead to the next.
You can place your child in front of a mirror as they dress. This strategy can help your child visualize whether they are dressing correctly.
You can also use a song or visual schedule while getting dressed. You can create your own or start with one like this one. Additionally, you can look at a visual schedule. Visual plans can help children with autism feel in control and prepared. Teachers Pay Teachers offers paid and free schedules here.
Finally, you can implement the use of a timer. Timers set clear expectations for how long each step of the getting ready process should take. You can reward your child as they complete each step on schedule.
Buying sensory-friendly clothes
Many companies now sell clothes that are designed specifically for people with autism.
|Type of clothing
|Fun & Function
|Clothing (all ages)
|Clothing for kids
|Sensory-friendly kids’ line
|Clothing and bedding (all ages)
|Adaptive clothing line (all ages)
|Clothing and bedding (all ages)
|Clothing and bedding (all ages)
|World’s Softest Socks
|Shoes and socks
|Shoes (no socks required)
|Adaptive shoe line
Sensory-friendly shopping hours
It has become more popular for stores to offer shopping hours specifically for people with sensory challenges to make the shopping experience more enjoyable.
Accommodations include lower lighting, fewer people, noise reduction, sensory maps, and visual aids. JCPenney, Target, and some malls may offer these sensory-friendly hours. Call your local stores to see if any provide this service.
Frequently asked questions
Children with autism remove their clothes because they don’t fit correctly or they irritate the skin. Also, autistic children often cannot verbalize their discomfort, understand social dressing expectations, or interpret emotional cues.
Your child with autism wants to wear the same clothes all the time because they prefer predictability and routine. By sticking to familiar outfits, the child knows they will not encounter itchy material or a loose tag.
Allow your child to wear clothing that they like, that is soft, and that fits correctly. Next, directly teach social expectations for keeping clothes on in public. Finally, consider hiring an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) Therapist to help you establish routines.
Establishing clothing routines for children with autism can be stressful for everyone. However, by implementing the right tools and strategies, you can successfully tackle each day and reduce anxiety for your child.