Sensory Processing Disorder & Clothes

Published by Sally Palmer on


Sensory Processing Disorder & Clothes


**There are so many songs that encapsulate the feeling of getting my children dressed in the morning, ranging from circus music to thrash metal (PUT IT ONNNNN!! LET’S GOOOOO!!!). I compromised and added only three songs; and no circus music.**

Dressing someone other than yourself can be incredibly challenging. Actually, sometimes it’s difficult dressing yourself and getting out the door in time. So let’s just agree that getting clothing on other people AND yourself can be nerve-wracking. New parents struggle with the seemingly endless layers of clothing that are required to keep their new baby warm enough – not to mention the whole diaper thing. If you use cloth diapers, you probably have to buy pants one size too big, just so their booty can fit. If you choose disposable diapers, blowouts are generally a common occurrence and you’re frantically grabbing another outfit as you run out the door. And then there’s spit-up – a bodily fluid that looks more like projectile vomiting than a small amount of saliva on a lower lip; which, conveniently, covers you, your clothes and said child. In any event, lots of clothes are involved, which means that you wash clothes more often than you.ever.imagined possible.

Once you get through the infant stage, you enter a new realm of clothing issues. Your new, louder companion is very opinionated about what they are going to wear, whereas your baby didn’t seem to care. You might wonder where your wonderful child went and why they are so adamant about wearing certain things and avoiding others. Chances are pretty good that your child is just entering the world of “toddlerhood” and they are declaring their independence through clothing choices. 

If, on the other hand, you find yourself at your wits end every single day and your child exhibits some other symptoms, such as avoiding/craving specific food textures, you might be wrestling with Sensory Processing Disorder. As a parent who has two children with SPD, I can tell you that it manifests itself in completely different ways for different kids, and changes daily. 

My older child is generally hypo or under-reactive and craves intense body input, such as jumping and crashing into anything and everything. They also love to spin and swing as high as they can, which calms their vestibular system (**my older child identifies as gender fluid and uses they/them pronouns**). On the other hand, they are not okay with their body being dirty, muddy or wet for more than a few minutes. They’re also picky about certain fabrics on their skin, but it doesn’t seem to be consistent. One day, they will wear jeans and a scratchy wool zip-up and the next day they will complain about sock seams and seek out super stretchy shirts and leggings. 

My youngest child, on the other hand, is extremely hyper-reactive and struggles the most with clothing. No matter how much she wants to wear jeans or pants with pockets, she can’t do it. Socks are also an extreme source of discomfort and sleeves didn’t happen for years. She would wear leggings and a dress every day, until she was about four or five – then she started to wear t-shirts, a few long sleeves and a sweater dress. Some things have gotten easier as she’s gotten older (and worked with an amazing OT), but I decided to let her choose her clothes, no matter what. 

When she went to her nature-based preschool and had to wear winter gear for safety reasons, I was faced with a parenting dilemma. No matter how much I tried to explain the new clothing rules to her, she would fight and scream, which made everyone really unhappy. Finally, and at my wits end, I decided institute a reward system, which actually worked (note: this is not my parenting style at all; I’ve never been comfortable bribing my kids). I took away all of her sleeveless dresses and she got one back every time she wore her gear outside at preschool. The mama guilt that I felt was awful – but it worked

Fast forward to the following year at preschool. My daughter was compliant with the clothing rules, but was suffering. She started to turn inwards and lose all of her vitality and confidence. She was only four years old. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that my daughter was having a conflict of conscience. She knew that she was supposed to wear the itchy jacket, heavy boots, scratchy hat and debilitating mittens, but she didn’t want to. This insecurity came out on a daily basis – she would always ask if it was okay to do something, instead of offering suggestions and leading play. She worried. A lot. 

After consulting with her perceptive and loving teachers, we came to the conclusion that my daughter needed to learn how to trust herself. Yes, wearing winter gear was important, but not at the cost of my child’s self esteem. For the duration of that winter, every time my daughter would ask if she could take off her jacket or mittens, or if she had to wear it at all, her teachers would redirect the question to her. As a result, she had to turn inwards and ask herself what she wanted and felt to be true. No matter what she decided, the teachers would follow her lead and give her positive reinforcement (Doesn’t it feel good to make decisions for yourself?). Thankfully, it worked. It took a long time for her to become confident again, but by the time she was in her third year of preschool, she felt completely confident and at ease with outdoor clothing.  


Buy “Sensory Friendly” clothes
Have clothes ready to go the night before school
Let your kids pick their outfits
Teach your children to listen their bodies
Validate your child’s feelings
Decide if the battle is “worth it” 
Understand that SPD looks different each day
Let go of the illusion of control
Learn how to advocate for your child
Empower your child to advocate for themselves
Ignore everyone who judges your parenting decisions
Patience, patience, patience

Before a child is diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, nothing seems to make sense and many parents struggle with anxiety, fear, self doubt and guilt. Once you realize the signals that your child is trying to send with their daily distress, you can start to treat the symptoms and navigate the triggers. I’m not going to say that it’s easy, because it’s not. But neither is being a parent, and I firmly believe that we are given what we can handle. Some days will be worse than others, but I don’t know many parents or caretakers who would honestly give up the joy and happiness they experience with their child/ren. You WILL get through this, one winter coat at a time.