Almost all young children are little natives; they often prefer to be naked or almost naked. Even when chilled, a lot of kids balk at putting on clothing. If your child has an ASD diagnosis or a sensory processing issue, their desire to stay undressed may not be just a preference. They may find the process of dressing (and undressing) and the clothes they wear to be a really stressful experience.
This post is intended to explain one of the common reasons why this can be so difficult for children and their tired/frustrated/exhausted/stressed parents and caregivers. It will not cover every reason, because humans are complex. But it might answer a lot of questions.
Clothing is not just a covering or an expression of style. It is a sensory experience. Fabric has weight and texture. As you put on or take off a garment, the material slides around or exerts some traction on skin and other tissue. I know; this sounds like I am totally overthinking this.
If you have sensory sensitivity, you know I am not.
Kids that find light touch irritating will cringe as they are getting dressed. Their sleeves and pant legs sliding around as they move really DO make them feel like buggies are crawling on their body. They aren’t inventing this. A nervous system that is misinterpreting sensation and is set to go into a defensive mode of processing with stimulation will create these experiences. They can’t think it away, or use CBT to disagree with the inaccurate messages from their brain.
What can you do?
- Use effective sensory modulation techniques. Actions that interfere with the brain’s interpretation of touch can help. the Wilbarger Protocol is the most widely used. This is done by administering deep pressure into skin and joints in a very short period of time. Teachers know it as “brushing”. It is far more than that. I was trained by Pat Wilbarger, and getting it wrong can make a child feel worse. Find an occupational therapist that knows the proper technique and do it right, or don’t do it at all.
- Pick clothes that are less triggering. Fabrics with a lot of loose sections, using scratchy material or trims, or a lot of layers that slide over each other will make this problem worse. Pick clothes that fit well and stay put. some kids prefer to wear a snug-fitting undershirt or bike shorts because the constant pressure on their skin acts like the Wilbarger Protocol all day long.
- Understand that sensory sensitivity in any domain will make this worse. You could change their socks and shirt tags and still have a very unhappy child. Think about the harshness of the lighting and the sounds surrounding them. Consider how visually complex your classroom is, and dial it back. Use dampening sound panels in the room they use all the time. The brain will react to the overall level of sensory input, so you have to respond in kind.
Looking for more information on helping the child with autism thrive?
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- Training isn’t done until a child can use the bathroom away from home and school. This has to be taught, so there is an entire chapter on it!
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