Dealing with Meltdowns and Resistance When Getting Kids with Autism Dressed
J Julia DeNey

Dealing with Meltdowns and Resistance When Getting Kids with Autism Dressed

Nov 22, 2023

Helping children, especially those with autism, get dressed involves understanding and dealing with meltdowns and resistance. We'll explore effective strategies for managing these challenges, identifying potential difficulties, and approaching dressing struggles with patience and empathy.

Sensory friendly hoodie on autistic model with hood up with sound reducing headphones underneath.

Is it Resistance or a Meltdown? 

Meltdowns and resistance (also known as tantrums) can look similar on the outside, but they are very different. Meltdowns are a general state where sensory inputs overwhelm the individual, causing their body to essentially "melt down." It's distinct from a tantrum, where meeting a desire might end the episode. With meltdowns, the body becomes dysregulated and shuts down, requiring specific sensory and calming strategies. Attempting to address demands during a meltdown is counterproductive, as the individual is not in a state to respond positively. Instead, providing support, employing calming strategies, and allowing time for the meltdown to subside are crucial.

Dealing with resistance is different. Resistance is often associated with behavioral opposition, such as a stubborn toddler resisting getting dressed. In these cases, maintaining patience is key. Allocating sufficient time in the morning routine to allow for resistance and holding firm boundaries can be effective. Rushing and becoming stressed only exacerbate the situation. Staying calm yet firm is essential in managing resistance, contributing to a more positive overall experience for both caregiver and child.

How to Identify Potentially Difficult Scenarios

Transitions during dressing, especially the process of taking off and putting on clothes, can pose significant challenges. It's important to recognize that the most demanding part lies in the actual transition itself. Once a layer is on, adding another may not be as challenging. The difficulty intensifies during the shift from taking off to putting on new clothes.

The level of difficulty can also vary depending on the occasion. Formal events may present more challenges than casual activities like donning workout clothes due to sensory reasons. Overcoming discomfort, especially with formal attire, can be particularly challenging. In some cases, it might be necessary to consider alternatives or compromise on certain clothing choices to prioritize the individual's comfort and well-being.

Sensory friendly joggers paired with fine motor friendly hoodie. Accessorized with sound canceling headphones and sensory balloon.

How to Handle Resistance without Escalation

Step number one is maintaining a calm demeanor. It's crucial not to contribute to any chaos or escalate the situation by mirroring their escalating emotions. Your tone, physical presence, and overall demeanor should exude calmness, neutrality, or, if it works, a positive and excited demeanor. Avoid displaying frustration that could intensify their anxiety or emotional state.

Utilizing your voice and educating the child about the dressing process are effective tools. Consistency is key; reinforcing the message that specific actions, like getting dressed, are prerequisites for certain activities. Remind them periodically and maintain a firm stance, emphasizing that certain activities hinge on completing the dressing routine. Consistency and a calm approach prove to be the most helpful tactics in managing these situations.

Use Patience and Empathy

Children often mirror their parents' reactions, and there's an opportunity for co-regulation when parents remain calm. Empathy plays a pivotal role in understanding that what children experience during dressing is vastly different from our own encounters. It's crucial to acknowledge that their behavior isn't about being difficult or stubborn; it might stem from anxiety, a genuine aversion to the sensory aspects of clothing, or past negative experiences. They navigate a sensory landscape that can be painful or overwhelming, unlike our own perceptions.

Having empathy for their situation is vital, recognizing that they're not intentionally trying to be difficult but are, in fact, having a challenging time. There's a poignant quote among parents that resonates with this perspective: "They're not giving you a hard time; they're having a hard time." It's a powerful reminder that, despite appearances, children aren't stubborn or resistant just to test boundaries. Maintaining this empathetic mindset can shift the dynamic, making it less of a battle and more of an opportunity to support and guide them through a challenging experience.

How to Use Self-Regulation Techniques and Sensory Input Strategies to Help Calm Your Child

There are numerous activities that can provide calming input, and recommendations may vary based on discussions with your child’s occupational therapist. Activities offering deep pressure input are particularly beneficial for their calming effect. Here are a few ideas to start with: 

  • Swinging can have a calming effect.
  • Wrapping a child tightly in a blanket (like a burrito) simulates a comforting hug.
  • Weighted blankets or stuffed animals can contribute to a sense of security.
  • Using a massage roller or a large yoga ball can offer sensory input through rolling motions (you can search steamrolling with therapy balls for a video example).
  • Gentle squeezes provide a similar comforting sensation.

The key is to explore various options and identify what works best for the child, taking into account their preferences and sensitivities.

Getting Dressed Can Be Less Stressful

Handling meltdowns and resistance when getting children with autism dressed requires a thoughtful and understanding approach. Recognizing the differences between meltdowns and resistance, identifying potential challenges, and managing resistance without escalation are essential. Patience, empathy, and using self-regulation techniques contribute to creating a positive and supportive environment for both caregivers and children. By understanding the unique sensory experiences of children with autism and using appropriate strategies, dressing routines can become more manageable and less stressful for everyone involved.

Sensory-Friendly Clothing For Autism 

Creating sensory-friendly clothing for neurodivergent kids is what Sense-ational You is all about. Check out our selection of sensory-friendly clothing today! 

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