By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

How to Prevent Your Autistic Child from Taking Their Clothes Off

Parenting comes with its challenges, and raising an autistic child adds unique complexities. One such challenge is the tendency of children with autism to take their clothes off unexpectedly. Such  behavior can be socially awkward and daunting, especially if they're not yet potty-trained. While this phase typically passes quickly for neurotypical children, it may persist longer for those on the autism spectrum.

Here, we explain why autistic children sometimes struggle with this behavior and offer practical tips to help. Our goal is to empower parents with actionable advice to ensure their child's comfort, confidence, and overall well-being and make your parenting journey smoother and more enjoyable.

The Connection: Autism and Children Taking Off Clothes

Autistic children often take off their clothes because they feel uncomfortable, even if they're wearing soft, natural fabrics. The reason for this is that these children have sensory challenges, and they can react strongly to touch and what they see. it's important to note that each child is unique, and the reasons for such behaviors can vary. 

Another set of challenges are associated with emotional regulation. In other words, the situation becomes intricate because many kids with autism don't respond to others' emotions like neurotypical children. They may have trouble picking up on feelings in the same way that other  kids do.

Sensory Challenges

Autistic children often face sensory challenges, like heightened sensitivity to textures and tight clothing. Some remove their clothes to feel better, as it's hard for them to express their discomfort verbally. This behavior is not defiance; it's their way of coping with sensory issues, similar to how some children take off their shoes in similar situations.

Specific examples include:

  • Uncomfortable from scratchy seams and tags on their clothes.
  • Being upset about clothes or waistbands feeling too tight.
  • Bothered by loose-fitting clothes that easily slip off.
  • Feeling itchy and uncomfortable in their clothing due to allergies.
  • Disliking their new clothes due to certain patterns or colors on the fabrics.

Emotional Regulation

It can be tough for autistic children to control their emotions, and this difficulty is linked to their social and behavioral issues. As a result, such children have a strong preference for routines. Removing their clothes can help them feel more in control in a world that often seems overwhelming and unpredictable. This act provides a sense of autonomy and establishes a comforting, predictable routine. This behavior makes sense when you consider their desire for control and the sensory difficulties they face.

For example:

  • An autistic child may not fully grasp what others expect of them. 
  • They might need help understanding the idea of imitating their peers. 
  • Deciphering the requests of frustrated adults may be tough for them. 
  • Their limited language skills could make it hard to express the discomfort they're feeling.

Autistic children may undress due to discomfort, often unaware of the inappropriateness due to difficulty in understanding emotional cues from others.

Strategies to Ensure Your Child Stays Dressed 

Now that you understand why an autistic child might struggle to keep their clothes on, how should you, as a parent or guardian, react?

You have a few options:

Identify and Rectify the Issue

To address your child's tendency to undress, you must first identify the specific reasons behind it. Once you've pinpointed the causes of their discomfort or distress, you can take appropriate steps to help.

If your child can communicate, ask them directly about what's bothering them. Avoid common questions like "Are you feeling uncomfortable?" Instead, ask specific questions, like about how the clothing feels, for instance, is it itchy or too snug?

For non-verbal children, try different outfits to see which ones they prefer. Notice which clothes they seem more comfortable in.

When purchasing new clothes, ensure you remove the tags and anything that could irritate your child’s skin. Check for rough spots or loose threads along the seams and hems and trim them.

If your child prefers clothing with a gentle, snug feel, consider options like Lycra or spandex garments for a budget-friendly solution. Alternatively, explore pricier alternatives like compression suits or weighted vests to meet their sensory needs.

Implement Behavioral Modification Techniques 

If you can't pinpoint a sensory trigger for the behavior, the next step is to actively instruct your child on how to keep their clothes on. You can utilize certain behavioral modification methods that employ positive reinforcement for desirable conduct and empathetic adjustments for inappropriate actions.

Here are some techniques you can implement:

  • Educate your child through picture books about wearing different clothes (shirt, pants, jacket, etc.) and dressing in general.
  • Direct their attention to how their peers manage to stay clothed.
  • Establish a sticker-based system, bestowing attractive stickers as a reward when your child keeps their clothing on for a specific duration.

Reward systems like sticker charts are a variant of incentives commonly embraced in applied behavioral analysis (ABA). ABA is a therapeutic approach that concentrates on enhancing specific behaviors, such as social skills and communication. For further help, you should get in touch with an ABA therapist to devise customized strategies for your child's needs.

Use These Practical Solutions

If clothing adjustments and behavior modifications prove ineffective, you may need to explore practical, short-term solutions. This involves implementing strategies to physically prevent your child from undressing.

Here are a variety of techniques you can consider:

  • Place fasteners at the rear of their clothing, making it out of reach for your child.
  • Dress your child in layered clothing, making it more challenging to disrobe completely.
  • Invest in one-piece, footed outfits like pajamas or onesies and put them on in a reversed fashion.
  • Utilize a safety pin to secure zippers, preventing them from being unzipped.
  • Consider replacing snaps with more complex fasteners, such as hook-and-eye closures.

To assist an autistic child in keeping their clothes on, it's important to pinpoint and address the root causes of their discomfort. You can also use positive reinforcement as a means to reward your child for keeping their clothes on. In the interim, opting for garments that are less accessible for removal can serve as a temporary measure.

Managing Autism and Clothing Removal Behavior

Understanding and managing clothing removal in autistic children requires kindness and patience. It's usually a response to sensory needs, not misbehavior. Identify discomfort sources, employ positive reinforcement, and consider visual aids. Avoid punitive measures, and make clothing harder to remove as a temporary solution. For further assistance, consult with doctors, therapists, or autism support groups. If you’re not sure your child keeps taking their clothes off because they might be on the autism spectrum, an autism screening is a swift assessment that evaluates neurobehavior in a child. 

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