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Terri Mauro
BY Terri Mauro

8 Ways NOT to Find a Winter Coat for Your Child with Sensory Issues

Ah, winter coat season. That time of year when parents of kids with sensory processing disorder, unable to wrap their children in appropriately warming clothing, steel themselves for the icy blasts of judgment that will blow their way from teachers, other parents, and random judge-y adults.

My son never had trouble wearing a winter coat, and he also never had trouble leaving that coat in the classroom and coming outside for pickup without a hat or gloves or a care in the world. He also never had trouble with boots on the wrong feet or sweatshirt necklines chewed to a soaking wet ice-cold mess. Yeah, I’ve seen the looks.

It’s not neglect, it’s sensory processing disorder! Really! I swear!

As we parents know and the judging judgers who judge do not, kids with sensory processing disorder have brains that don’t process information from the senses well. Some are so sensitive that a tag or a seam is like a claw tearing into their skin. Some are so insensitive that 32 degrees on bare skin is NBD. Some swing back and forth between those extremes, while others are one way for some things and another for others. So that’s easy to deal with.

Since every child’s sensory profile is different, there’s no one-size-fits-all to getting the proper warming garments onto your particular kiddo. I wrote a book on sensory processing disorder, and I’d love to put on my expert hat and say, “Here! Go buy this coat! Or maybe this one!” To be real, though, from one parent to another, I can mostly just tell you what’s not gonna work. Here are 8 ways to predictably fail at successfully coat-ing your sensory-processing-challenged kiddo.

1. Get what everybody else is getting.

Cute! Stylish! Developmentally typical! The opportunity to fit in with peers would seem to be a great motivation for children of a certain age, and yet … if you feel like that coat is going to kill you, it doesn’t much matter how super-cool it is.

And really, is “Do what other kids are doing even if it feels wrong to you” ever a message you want to give to your child? Enjoy those teen years!

2. Get what other parents think you should.

Everybody’s got an opinion on what’s appropriate for a young person to wear when it’s cold outside. And judging other people’s parenting is fun! We all do it. It’s why they made the Internet. But if you don’t trust uninformed folks in other areas of your child’s health and well-being, don’t do it here either.

Repeat to yourself: “I don’t have to apologize for being a good parent to my child.” You know your child has legitimate issues with winter clothes. You know that you are making a conscientious attempt to dress your child in a way that suits both the weather and his or her own particular needs. Help your child resist peer pressure by modeling resistance yourself.

3. Ignore what your child wants.

There’s only one person whose opinion really matters when it comes to finding the right winter gear, and that is the #1 expert on your child’s sensory needs. Not you, not me, not your OT, not the PTA moms giving you the stink-eye from behind their lattes, not the snarky blogger posting “Can you believe people let their kid out like that?” photos.

Who then? Your child. Your child knows what feels right better than anybody else in the world. Pay attention, and work together to find something right.

4. Look for a magic solution.

We’ve all done it — spent big money on something that’s going to solve all our kid’s problems only to have our child give it a moment’s notice before turning thumbs down. That expensive coat you think will be just the thing may well get the same treatment. Try not to set yourself up for costly disappointment. That will only increase the stress level and in turn make clothing battles worse.

Sadly, there’s probably not going to be one magical right thing that you can find if you just look hard enough. Your child’s needs are unique, and will need a personalized solution. Think of it as a project for you to pursue together.

5. Feel like no one else could possibly understand.

Every other parent has a child who wears a winter coat! When nobody in your circle seems to know the troubles you’ve seen, it can feel like the entire weight of figuring out what your kid needs is on you. Fortunately, in addition to being a treasure trove of judgmental snark, the Internet is a place where you can seek out and find parents going through similar challenges and brainstorm together.

Online support groups can be a terrific resource — for “Try this,” and also for “My kid does that exact same dysfunctional thing too!” and “You are not a bad parent!” Dismiss the ideas that don’t work for your one-of-a-kind kid and keep the ones that point you in a direction you hadn’t considered or inspire a new idea to investigate. Pass on what you’ve had success with and no success with too.

Dr. Google can also point you to posts full of ideas to pick through (including some on this blog, like “How To Keep Children and Adults With Special Needs Warm In The Winter,” “10 Tips for Dressing a Sensory Sensitive Child,” and “11 More Tips For Dressing Your Sensory-Sensitive Child“). The idea is not to find the One Perfect Solution, just some ideas to try with your child to come up with an individualized fix.

6. Interpret rejection of clothing as a deliberate behavioral choice.

It’s natural to see your child’s refusal to do something obviously necessary, like wearing a winter coat when it’s freezing, as deliberate ornery stubbornness. Yet using disciplinary strategies to address sensory issues is entirely ineffective. A child has to be capable of modifying the behavior in order for behavior modification to work. If that’s not the case, you’re just being mean.

Honestly, you’re much more able to modify your approach to winter gear to accommodate your child’s needs than your child is to change the way his or her body feels. So do it. The information your child is giving you about what feels comfortable and what feels horrifying is information you need. Don’t punish your kid for giving it to you.

7. Forget about your own sensory quirks.

Admit it: sometimes you feel uncomfortable under all that stuff too. One of the best ways to understand your child’s sensory problems with clothing is to ‘fess up to your own. Think of times your clothing has felt scratchy. Think of a jacket you’ve worn that just made you horribly hot. Remember the tights with a seam that would just never stay right or the neckline you constantly had to tug at.

The difference between our grown-up sensitivities and our children’s is that we get to pick what we wear. If we don’t like something, it moves to the back of our closet. If we feel like going out without a sweater, we go out without a sweater. Give your child as much of a right to hate certain wearables — and as many choices of acceptable options — as you give yourself.

8. Rule out anything.

This is what we call a “whatever works” situation. If your child will wear it, it works. Be open to odd solutions — leggings under shorts? vest instead of jacket? tried-and-true garments that barely hold together? A garment that’s too big for kids who hate being bound or too small for those who like to be hugged tight by their clothing may be a possibility. The goal is your child’s comfort and health, not anybody’s seal of approval.

The A-1 best winter coat for your child with special needs may be the coat of understanding, confidence, and love you wrap around him or her. Hey, look at that — your kid has something specifically hand-tailored.


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Terri Mauro

Written on December 19, 2016 by:

Terri Mauro is a former blog manager for Friendship Circle and Parenting Special Needs guide for About.com. She is the author of 50 Ways to Support Your Child's Special Education and The Everything Parents Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder. You can read more of her work on her website Mothers With Attitude and listen to her every weekday on the Parenting Roundabout Podcast. Terri has two children with special needs adopted from Russia in 1994.
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