C is for Clothes

No, I am not going to talk about your child's sense of style, although my personal belief is that they should dress as well as possible and have a good haircut*
Just because they have special educational needs, does not mean that they should not look fabulous. And hey, if they look good, people are going to make allowances for behaviour!

But, I am going to try and explain why your child's sensory challenges coupled with the natural rigidity and intolerance of change can cause wardrobe problems for parents.

First I want you to imagine that you have just got out of the shower, dried off and have put on your clothes for the day. In the first few minutes after we get dressed in the morning we can feel our clothes. Not in an irritating or scratchy way, but just a sensation of contact.

Now imagine that that sensation of contact lasts all day. For many of our kids in the early stages it is so unpleasant that the first thing they do when they get in the door is take all their clothes off. Getting them dressed to go out is a torment as they are genuinely distressed and will often undress again as soon as you turn your back. Which is great fun if you have more than one child and you are running late! I used to have to dress him and then bodily carry him to the car, strap him in to his seat belt and then go back for the Bratty. Shoes would go on at our destination.

And as far as fine motor development and milestones went, both Boo and Bratty are expert strippers of every item of clothing including shoes. Particularly shoes. Getting dressed was a different story.

Hopefully you will get past this and start to teach your child that they wear certain clothes at certain times, in return for tolerating a level of partial dress once they get inside the front door.

In the summer time it will mean getting used to a sensation of exposed skin in t-shirts, shorts and dresses and maybe sandals without socks. (please do not make them wear socks with sandals, that is a crime against fashion).

In the winter it can mean getting used to tighter and cosier sweaters, long trousers, socks, tights and boots.

They are never going to naturally look for the most appropriate clothing for a situation, so you and other significant carers are always going to have to monitor how cold or hot they are, much like a baby. This can be a real challenge with husbands (sorry guys) and professional carers who are used to kids who tell them when they are hot or cold.

And it is very very very difficult to introduce these changes. Look out for puzzles and games to do with weather and "dress up" toys and use them to tell a social story around the issue. Make sure that the clothes are kept as close to the door as possible to naturally prompt the wearing and removal as they come in and out. A shoe rack is a good idea. At home we all remove our shoes as we come in. They could do the same at school, just send in a pair of "inside shoes" or slippers so they don't get cold.

The second issue is rigidity. Some kids in the autistic spectrum can seem to be getting along fine with changes and then suddenly develop and obsession for keeping some aspect of their environment exactly the same. Huge behaviours can occur around this and like the iceberg the reason and therefore the solution lies under the surface.

I found that Boo was reasonably tolerant of changes in his environment until he changed school, one year into arriving here in Ireland. At the time I had just purchased a new tracksuit with a popular character them on it, and matching boots. He would become violently distressed if I tried to dress him in anything else. Fortunately he had two of these tracksuits. I contacted the retailer and found six more of them in a city branch which I dispatched my Father in law to collect, bless him!
I had a short reprieve and he kept wearing them. With every wash they got smaller, and the boots which were not a good make to begin with, started to fall apart. I got a replacement pair. Slowly we crept towards summer and the fleecy sweatshirt and long pants were getting to be too warm. I paid a dress maker to make the pants into shorts, moving the logo myself. Then we made the jackets into body warmers, and vest tops.

Summer arrived and we were going on holiday to Spain. I bought a swimming costume, hat and towel in the character theme. And a pair of sandals that he could barely tolerate for long enough to get the size right. I actually sat on him in the shoe store while we measured them against his foot.

We arrived in Spain with the Boo in his fleece shorts, sleeveless hoodie and hiking boots. I got the sandals out hopefully. His Dad asked him if he wanted to go to the swimming pool so he tolerated putting the swimsuit on and getting his towel ready but when he went for the boots, Daddy offered him an ultimatum. Sandals or no pool? the Sandals went on and we broke the bond. I pushed the last fragments of the boots under a bed and left them for the cleaners to find.

He kept wearing the shorts all summer, by mid summer he was completely comfortable with short sleeves and sandals until one day we had a stand off about a raincoat on a very rainy day. Slowly we introduced some other clothes, but always with either the top or the shorts from the original tracksuit and from then on I got a lot smarter about dressing.

Nowadays I buy the very best shoes I can afford in their size. One new pair per season. That way if they become obsessed with them they won't be falling apart. On a given day I will switch from the summer to winter shoe and that is usually it for the next six months. The first day is tricky, particularly when they are used to a tight fitting winter shoe, but they get used to it if you pair it with a rewarding activity. No shoes = no fun kind of deal.

I have also begun to introduce different kinds of shoes for different activities, a social story that you wear. Jelly shoes or crocs for swimming, Ugg boots for going out in the car (no socks for Daddy to fuss with) and sturdy boots for winter. Boo also has running shoes for sports days and hiking boots for social outings and walks. I have found recently that his anxiety over wearing certain shoes can indicate that he is anxious about the scheduled activities and the expectations of that day. Which he would never be able to tell me.

At the beginning of summer we dress them and take them to the airport in their new sandals and they wear them happily for the next six months. I think of it like when the clocks go forward, the trees are in bloom, the swallows arrive and the Hammie family all start wearing sandies; You know summer is here.

With the clothes, I find it best to stick to a theme. Find what suits their sensory needs and comfort, is attractive and age/gender appropriate and buy as many different versions in the same shape but different colors as you can afford.

As a frustrated stage mom/ex fashionista I would love to dress Bratty like a Mediterranean princess in frills but it just does not suit her personality. She is prone to a flat on the floor legs in the air tantrum, so I make sure she wears knickerbockers under her dress.

She is fond of chocolate and vegemite so she has to have a clean dress everyday, sometimes twice a day. And, she likes to wear her pants on her hips like Britney, so I buy t-shirt style dresses that hide her builders bum and do not need ironing. I tried to put her in jeans but she pulled them so low on her hips she got sent out of assembly for showing her lovely bottom. So dress over pants it is!

There are still some days when I have to sit on her to put a long sleeved t-shirt on under the dress, and she refuses to wear long trousers but you can adapt and use long socks instead. And whenever I feel guilty I think of poor Frank McCourt running around in short trousers in the middle of a Limerick winter and surviving to write all those books and sure he was grand.

I think things could be worse.

You choose your battles and you adapt.


*Haircuts, next week!


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