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How to help children with sensory clothing issues

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Imagine sitting in a circle with your preschool friends who are listening intently as an educator reads We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. They’re enjoying the story but all you can focus on is the itching sensation around your neck caused by your thick winter pullover. You just don’t have the words yet to tell your educators how much it bothers you, and you don’t know how to remove it. All you can think to do is cry and scratch, and it’s making you feel miserable and frustrated. This is the experience of a child with clothing sensitivities.

We speak with Paediatric Occupational Therapist Laura Petix about how to support children experiencing sensory clothing issues.


For children with sensory clothing issues, sensations that may be unnoticeable to us are unbearable to them. The tag on a t-shirt, the seam on a pair of shorts, or even the fuzziness of socks can impede a child’s ability to function in important activities. For educators and parents, this can create hygiene or safety challenges and risk obstructing a child’s opportunity to learn.

If a child has issues with clothing, do they have a sensory processing disorder (SPD)?

Throughout our busy days, our brains are constantly receiving information about our environment through our senses. The coffee we smell, the traffic we hear, and the clothing we touch all send signals to our brain which then registers the information and decides if a response is necessary and how to react. The concept of sensory processing difficulties was introduced by Dr. A Jean Ayres in the 1970s, after identifying that some brains were unable to regulate all of this incoming information in the same way that many of us take for granted. Whilst many of us have unique sensations we may not like, such as the sound of nails on a chalkboard or the feeling of a cotton ball, an SPD can hinder the daily activities and interests of a person. When a child’s sensory clothing issues negatively impact their social interactions or education opportunities, it may be indicative of a Sensory Processing Disorder.

“A child who has a clothing sensitivity is considered to have a low threshold for tactile input, meaning they register tactile input at a higher rate than neurotypical people,” explains Paediatric Occupational Therapist  Laura Petix.

SPD Australia states that SPD affects the functional skills of 1 in 20 children. A common misconception around SPD is that it is just another name for ADHD or a form of autism spectrum disorder. Whilst there may be many overlapping symptoms, this is incorrect. SPD, and clothing sensitivities in particular, can impact any person at any age regardless of whether they also have these disorders.

What are some signals indicating a sensory clothing issue?

According to Petix, children with clothing sensory issues can sense every seam, wrinkle or fuzz ball in a sock. They are extremely irritated by tags. They may not be able to tolerate clothes that fit them and rather prefer clothes that are too tight or too big. In extreme cases, some children cannot tolerate wearing underwear at all or socks or shoes. She identifies some signals educators can be aware of that may indicate clothing sensitivity issues. It is important to note that these signs do not definitively determine an SPD and each child’s situation should be considered individually.

Clothing Challenges in Sensory Senitive Children
Clothing Challenges in Sensory Sensitive Children via Instagram @theotbutterfly

Some signals could include if a child –

  • is particularly fidgety or unfocused and continually plays with or adjusts their clothing;
  • refuses to play dress up games when given the opportunity;
  • regularly wears a “uniform” of the same clothing and if they deviate from this you may notice an increase in agitated behaviour;
  • wears clothing that is not appropriate for the weather or is the wrong size.

How can we best support a child experiencing this?

Understanding the effects of a sensory issue is crucial as many children experiencing this have a higher chance of developing educational, social or emotional problems. Their behaviorisms are at risk of being negatively misinterpreted, including labels such as disruptive, impulsive, immature, or belligerent.

Here are some helpful tips for parents and educators supporting a child with clothing sensitivities:

  1. Find clothing without tags in or remove them.
  2. Use clothing with super soft fabrics or natural materials – synthetic blends can be uncomfortable to sensitive children.
  3. Allow plenty of time for the child to get dressed so they can become familiar with the sensation of each fabric on their skin.
  4. Try and buy multiples of clothing that the child finds comfortable.
  5. Have heavy clothing or blankets available for children who find comfort in a “cocoon” feeling.
  6. Look for clothes without difficult fasteners – velcro and drawstrings will help stop children getting frustrated and worked up over tricky tasks like buttoning or tying.
  7. Ensure the child has extra clothing at a centre in case they become dirty or wet as this can trigger dysregulation in many sensory sensitive children.

As Petix states, “The best way to support a child with sensitive clothing challenges is to work with them and support them in their sensory needs rather than work against them … allow them to feel comfortable, which will enable them to focus better on what they are doing”.

Check out Laura Petix (The OT Butterfly) and other resources on sensory processing issues below.

Further reading:

The OT Butterfly – Pediatric Occupational Therapist Laura Petix

Child Mind Institute – Sensory Processing Issues Explained

SPD Australia – Supporting and advocating for people with Sensory Processing Disorder

 

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