How to Stop Your Autistic Child From Taking His Clothes Off

Find a solution that works for your child

Father dressing toddler in nursery
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Many parents of toddlers worry about their children taking their clothes off. Not only is public nudity frowned upon after infancy, but diaperless children who are not potty-trained can cause a horrible mess.

But while parents of typical children usually resolve this issue relatively quickly, it becomes increasingly frustrating for parents of autistic children because the behavior is constant, occurs in public places, or persists long beyond the “aw, isn’t that cute” stage of development. As children grow older, there can also be serious consequences to public nudity, ranging from problems in school to angry responses from parents of other children.

Why Won't Your Child Keep His Clothes On?

In most cases, autistic children remove their clothes because they're uncomfortable. This can be the case even if you've carefully selected soft, all-natural fabrics and checked for obvious issues such as sticky diapers, pins, and outgrown shoes. That's because many children with autism have sensory challenges that make them more likely than their typical peers to react strongly to physical sensations. For example:

  • They may be unusually sensitive to uncomfortable tactile sensations such as scratchy seams and tags.
  • They may need more tactile pressure or sensation than is provided by loose-fitting clothes.
  • They may be reacting to itchiness causes by allergies to detergents

The problem is exacerbated by the reality that children with autism don't respond to peer pressure or parental frustration in the same way as typically developing children. They aren't intentionally causing problems, but:

  • They may not be as aware as other children of the expectations placed upon them by the people around them.
  • They may not be attuned to the idea of imitating their peers.
  • They may not be able to understand what is being asked of them by frustrated parents.
  • They may not have the language skills to describe the discomfort they're feeling.

How to Help Your Child Stay Dressed

Given the reality that your child with autism may have some significant difficulties with keeping those clothes and diapers on, how should you respond? There are a few routes to take; start with the first and, if you're not successful, try the next.

Solution 1: Find the Problem and Accommodate

Is your child’s propensity for stripping related to tactile issues? Of course, your first concern will be to ensure that your child is not wet or poopy. If a dirty diaper is uncomfortable for a typical child, it can be unwearable for an autistic child. But if that’s not an issue, it’s time to search out some other possible answers to your question.

If your child is verbal, you can ask him to explain his reasons for stripping. You may need to be specific about your questions; for example, instead of asking “are you uncomfortable?” try asking “is your shirt itchy? Where is the itchy place?” and so forth. Second, you can experiment by trying out different types of clothes and observing your child’s response.

If your child is responding to itchy or rough clothing, easy first steps are to remove all tags and clip any extraneous or uncomfortable bands or edges. Run your fingers over the clothing to be sure you’ve caught everything. If your child is uncomfortable in his diaper or pull-up, try another brand or choose soft cotton (though you will need a rubber or synthetic cover to keep your child dry).

If your child is responding to clothing that is too loose (and some children with autism very much prefer tighter clothes that provide tactile feedback), you’ll need to choose clothes that give a little “squeeze.” The less expensive option is to choose “athletic” or swim shirts or shorts, leggings, or other lycra/spandex outfits. Other possibilities include more expensive, “autism-friendly” clothing such as a compression suit specifically made to provide a deep squeeze or a weighted vest.

Solution 2: Use Behavioral Modification

If you can’t find any sensory problems you can solve, your next step should probably be a behavioral approach. In essence, you need to train your child to keep his clothes on. This can be achieved through a few positive routes including:

  • Instruction through the use of picture books and social stories
  • Modeling behavior by calling attention to how peers stay dressed and use the bathroom
  • Positive reinforcement for good behavior

Some parents create sticker charts; when a child keeps his clothes on for X amount of time, he earns a star or a small treat. This is a tool borrowed from ABA (Applied Behavioral Therapy). You may even want to work with an ABA or other behavioral therapist to help you develop some behavior-based approaches to the problem.

Solution 3: Find a Physical Solution

If neither accommodation nor behavioral modification is successful (or while you’re experimenting with either or both), you may need to find a physical way to keep your child from stripping down. Bottom line, you may need to make it physically impossible for your child to get his clothes off.  To do this, you'll need to choose and/or modify clothing so that it is difficult or impossible to remove. A few examples:

  • Put all fasteners in back, so that your child can’t reach them
  • Buy footed outfits (pajamas are the most common) and put them on backward
  • Buy union suit style undergarments and put them on backward
  • Modify zippers so that they can’t be easily unzipped (use a safety pin to pin the zipper in the up position)
  • Replace snaps with more complex or sturdier fasteners
  • Dress your child in layers so that it’s harder to strip

The good news is that the vast majority of children, with autism or without, do learn to keep their clothes on. Meanwhile, give these solutions a try!

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