Learn How to Work With Your Child's Sensitivities, Not Against Them
Sensory processing disorder is common among autistic children. It affects everyday activities, behavior, and especially life skills such as bathing and dressing. When the mind cannot interpret incoming data from your basic senses correctly – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – the jumbled information can result in odd or strange behaviors.
It’s through your central nervous system that the body gathers information about the world and relays it to the brain, so the brain can organize the information. Once organized, the brain then decides on the best way to handle the experience or threat.
Seven Sensory Systems Can Malfunction
Although we have seven sensory systems that can malfunction (the basic senses plus the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system), the most common sensory problem among autistic children is the sense of touch. That can make finding clothes that your child will wear somewhat difficult. When they insist on wearing the same clothes almost every day and avoid wearing denim jeans in preference for baggie sweats, jogging clothes, stretch pants, or silky shorts, the problem is most likely touch sensitivity.
Touch sensitive children react defensively when something touches their skin. What they feel when you touch them, or when material touches their skin, can range from a slight annoyance to severe pain. These reactions often result in stimming, temper tantrums, throwing toys, or meltdowns. While an occupational therapist can work with autistic children to improve or overcome their sensory defects, there are also things that parents can do to make their child more comfortable.
Touch Sensitive Children Need Soft Clothing
Autistic children with sensory issues don’t just fight against jeans. They often show sensitivity to socks, shoes, shirts, and even dresses. Switching from clothing associated with one particular season such as summer shorts to winter jeans and sweats can also be problematic. Basically, anything that feels stiff, scratchy, bumpy, or itchy causes the nervous system to overreact in someone who has difficulty with sensory integration.
It doesn’t have to feel extremely rough or scratchy to you. In fact, it probably won’t. That’s why it can be difficult for those who don’t have sensory issues to understand what’s going on. To those with touch sensitivity, it feels like sandpaper is being rubbed on their skin. It can also feel like a rug burn, or like someone is sticking them with sharp needles or straight pins.
Jeans with a button or metal-snapped waist can also cause problems because unlike those who crave additional sensory experiences, most of the kids who have touch sensitivity hate tight or snug clothing. In addition, they can react negatively to seams, zippers, and clothing tags. Even the printed face on a tee shirt, an appliqué, or decorative trim can cause discomfort and pain if accidentally touched.
In general, denim jeans easily set off touch sensitivities because denim is rarely soft. In fact, most jeans come highly starched. Although washing helps, the fibers themselves are extremely rough. When fancied up with topstitching, embroidery, sequins, beads, and decals, denim jeans contain everything a touch sensitive individual should avoid. The answer for most kids with touch sensitivity is seamless, extremely soft clothing.
What Does Your Child on the Autism Spectrum Like to Wear?
Sensory processing disorder comes with a spectrum of different manifestations. To zero in on your child’s sensitivity level, take a few minutes to consider what they like to wear. While some children fight against all types of jeans, another might prefer light, thin denim, or something with Spandex so that it easily stretches. Comfort dictates the extent you need to go, so listen to your child’s preferences. It’s not just in their head.
For nonverbal, autistic children, or when touch defensiveness interferes with their quality of life, it’s best to avoid denim jeans altogether. But if your child communicates and it’s frustrating you, try to find out what they don’t like about jeans.
Check out the characteristics of clothing that they do prefer, and think about any additional sensory issues involved. Chemicals in clothing materials, the way a detergent smells, and perfumed and/or gluten-laden fabric softeners can all contribute to your child’s negative experience. Although being sensitive to touch might be your child’s major problem, these additional issues can magnify their sensitivity.
Home Brushing Helps Your Autistic Child Become Less Sensitive to Touch
Many parents of autistic children find it helpful to rub their child’s skin, in the same way that you would rub a sore muscle to ease the ache. Hypersensitive children can perceive touch as quite painful, so start slowly. Begin with a soft washcloth, and gently move it over your child’s arm or leg.
Initially, they might only be able to withstand the feel of the washcloth for a moment or two, but keep trying. The idea is to get them used to the way the roughness of the washcloth feels. Once they become used to the feeling, they might be able to tolerate this rubbing exercise for longer periods. If sensitivity improves, you can also attempt different, stronger textures.
How to Get Your Child to Wear Denim Jeans
If your child falls somewhere in the mid-range of sensitivity, try helping them to adjust by:
- buying flannel-lined jeans
- paying a seamstress to line the jeans with a super soft material your child finds comfortable
- letting your child wear soft thermals or leggings underneath their jeans
If your child’s skin is getting less sensitive, you might also try making denim jeans more tolerable by doing one or more of the following:
- Try washing brand new jeans several times before having your child attempt to wear them.
- If you have hard water, add a sprinkle of baking soda or washing soda when you wash the jeans.
- When laundry soap doesn’t rinse clean, material stiffens. Try adding 1/2-cup of standard, white vinegar to the rinse water to help the soap rinse out better.
- Shampoo works by stripping your hair of oils and debris. You can do the same thing by working cheap shampoo into the fabric of the jeans. Allow them to sit overnight, and then wash them as usual. The shampoo will break down the fibers so they feel old, worn, and more comfortable. In fact, you might want to do this a couple of times.
- Dryer sheets are not fabric softeners. They add fragrance and help with static cling. If your child is not gluten sensitive, soak the jeans overnight in a mixture of scent-free liquid fabric softener and water. Alternately, you can wash them in fabric softener rather than detergent.
- Freezing also breaks down fabric fibers. Wet the jeans, roll them up like a sleeping bag, then freeze the bundle overnight. The next day, simply thaw them out completely, and then wash as usual. However, don’t try to unroll them before they thaw.
- Jeans get softer and smoother as the fibers flatten. You can twist them, beat them, or stretch them, roll them up and bang them against the wall, or put them in the dryer with a few tennis balls. You might even try scraping the jeans with sandpaper or the blade of a pair of scissors.
Accept Your Child's Preferences
Touch defensive behavior causes children with autism to hate wearing jeans and other types of clothing. That can bring a lot of conflict to the home, and inner turmoil for the child. Sometimes it’s easier and less stressful on everyone to just accept what your child will or will not wear. Boys don’t have to wear jeans. You can simply buy several pairs of whatever pants or shorts your child will wear in different colors.
But you can also just concede and let them wear the same colored pants or shorts everyday if they desire. It doesn’t matter what other people think. All that matters is the comfort of your child. While there are many companies who specialize in soft clothing for autistic children that can make the task of dressing them easier, always work around your child’s sensory issues. Never fight against them.