Managing the Stress of Cold Weather Dress

The weather outside is frightful…and so is the thought of getting a warm coat on your child with autism.  If the signs of the changing weather send you into a panic, because your child refuses to wear clothes appropriate for cold weather, read below for some tips on how to get through the winter with your sanity in tact.

  1. Think about texture
  2. Sensitivity to certain textures is common amongst individuals with autism.  If this is the case for your child, I’m sure you are no stranger to the battles that come with this in terms of getting dressed.  If having long sleeves or pants on your child’s body is already a point of contention, there’s no need to make it any harder by adding an aversive texture.  I’m sure as a parent you wouldn’t intentionally give your child something to wear that he or she might fight, but it’s something to keep in mind when shopping for that warmer gear.  Luckily, there are a variety of jackets and pants out there with soft and cozy lining.  If there is no option, then working on specific textures first might be the place to start.

  3. Provide choice
  4. While some of us may experience difficulty in making decisions, the freedom to choose creates a perception or sense of control.  For many individuals with autism, many things may feel out of their control.  Having the ability to choose, makes for a less stressful situation and a far more willing participant in whatever the activity may be.  If bringing your child shopping with you is not something you feel you want to tackle, buying a few options of whatever the article of clothing in question is, may give your child the opportunity to choose at home.  You can always return the others.  If you are able to keep multiple jackets that meet your child’s criteria, presenting choices regularly might be the way to go.  Providing specific choices makes it clear that not wearing a jacket is not an option.

  5. Reinforcement and Practice
  6. If you’ve ever started a new exercise routine and jumped full steam into a new regimen, you know how, literally, painful it can be.  If you break that routine into baby steps and build from there, though, it becomes not only doable, but a lot less painful.  The same goes for building your child’s tolerance to certain articles of clothing.  If wearing long sleeves, coats, pants, or gloves is stressful for your child, start small and build up.  Details on how to do this are included below.

    • First things first: identify a powerful potential reinforcer.
    • If this is an important thing to focus on for you and your child (and keeping them warm and safe is pretty important), then utilizing the most powerful reinforcer you can is going to be your best chance.  Let’s say you know your child loves his spinning top toy (or fill in the blank with whatever it is) and will do practically anything for this toy, why not use it for one of your biggest struggles?  Of course, you may already be using whatever this reinforcer is for other things, but I would think about putting it aside just for this purpose until you’ve built up your child’s tolerance.

    • Prioritize
    • Once you’ve identified the potential reinforcer, think about the article of clothing. Trying to tackle too many different things at once can backfire.  Try to start with the most urgent need first.  You can use the same approach with other articles of clothing if need be once the most important need is met.

    • Identify the starting point.
    • Everyone will be starting in a different place with this.  If your child won’t even look at a pair of warm socks or approach a jacket, you will want to start with Part I: Getting Item On.  If you know you can coerce or physically help to get the item on, but struggle with keeping it on, then you can skip to Part II: Increasing Amount of Time.

Part I: Getting Item On

Let’s work on building toward that item going on your child’s body.  Both Parts I & II involve different types of shaping.  For this first part, we want to shape closer and closer approximations to our goal of getting that jacket/shirt/pair of pants on. Think of this as those baby steps.  If you’ve ever set goals for yourself, then you’ve probably broken the end goal down into small goals and celebrated or rewarded yourself for meeting those small goals to keep yourself motivated.  We essentially want to do the same thing here.  For whatever reason, your child refuses to put on certain articles of clothing.  This may be a situation of fear, stress, or simply an attempt to gain control.  In any case, it’s a problem, so we want to break this into steps and provide motivation.

  1. Break into steps. Some potential steps might be:
    • item in room
    • item within 5 feet
    • item next to child
    • child touches item
    • child holds item
    • child puts part of item on (1 leg in pant or one arm in sleeve)
    • child puts more of item on
    • child has item on
    You may be thinking, that is way too broken down or my child needs every single one of those steps.  You know best, so start with a manageable step for your child.
  2. Tell your child what you would like for him or her to do and what will happen after. For instance, “I’d like you to put 1 arm in the sleeve, and if you do, you can have your toy.”  Or, “first 1 sleeve, then toy.”  As always, I would keep your language as clear and concise as possible.
  3. Once your child has completed that step, provide the reinforcer you promised. At a later time, try this same step again.
  4. Once your child has successfully completed this step 2-3 times, you can progress to the next step, such as putting both arms through the sleeves. Keep going until you are able to get the entire article of clothing on your child.
  5. Because this is more about tolerating cold weather gear than learning to dress, I wouldn’t worry about your child putting these items on independently. You can work on dressing at another time.

Part II: Increasing amount of time:

Once you are able to actually get the article of clothing in question on your child, you will want to build up the amount of time your child will tolerate keeping the item on.

  1. Determine a baseline. In order to know how long to aim for, you will need to know how long your child is currently able to keep the article of clothing on for.  To do this, you may time it on a few different occasions and then take an average.  I would start just below the average.  For instance, if your child will keep his or her socks on for an average of 1 minute at a time, you might want to start with requiring 50 seconds first.  The reason for this is that we want your child to be successful.  If you set the bar too high by requiring too long a period of time, then you’re both going to end up frustrated.
  2. Once you’ve determined how long you want to start with, you might say something like, “Okay, we are only going to wear this for a few seconds. If you keep this on until I count to 5 (or until the timer goes off), then you can have ___ (the reinforcer)”.  There are other things you could do to make this more natural.  For instance, saying something like, “I just want to see if it fits- let’s just put it on really quick”.
  3. If your child is successful without whining, crying, or other form of protest, then provide the reinforcer.
  4. Once successful for a couple of times at this level, increase the amount of time. Be sure to make the increments small enough.
  5. If unsuccessful, do not provide reinforcer and say, “Okay, let’s try again. Remember, if you can keep it on for __ sec/minutes, then you can have___.”
  6. If unsuccessful 2 times in a row, I would go back to the previous level.
  7. Continue this pattern until length of time has increased.

Another option

Another option might be shaping the kind of clothing. If a sweater is the end goal, you might start with partially long sleeves of a t-shirt for instance and move to longer and thicker sleeves over time.  You could do the same thing for pants.  For gloves and hats, you might try a lighter weight material first.  If the tightness of socks is the issue, you might try loose socks or slippers first then build from there.  Again, it’s all about those baby steps.

Some of this may seem like a lot to go through to get some pants on a child, but you know best what a frustrating experience it can be.  Progressing through these steps will likely go a lot faster than you think, and the end result of a warm child will be worth it.