5 Helpful Tips for Winter for Your Child with Autism and Sensory Issues
Winter is coming. No, this isn’t turning into Game of Thrones fan fiction. As the seasons change and the rain and snow begin to fall, it’s time to start thinking about pulling out those winter coats and long johns. For most of us, this simply means we need to get serious about cleaning our closets. But, this is a bigger deal for our kids with autism or sensory processing disorder.
Change can be challenging. The gray skies, dropping temperatures, new winter activities, and adoption of warmer clothing can be a radical difference from the summer culture.
But, what do you do if your child insists on wearing his favorite pair of shorts all year long?
Or, if the rain and wind aggravate your child’s skin?
What happens when your routine is turned upside down by holiday vacations and breaks from school?
Is this sounding like one big meltdown to you?
When you child has autism or sensory issues, winter isn’t always the happy holidays the commercials make it out to be. But it doesn’t need to be one big meltdown. The tips below will help you prepare your child for all of the winter transitions, from weather to schedule changes.
1) Create Positive Experiences with Winter Clothing
No matter how much your child loves to run around in shorts and a t-shirt, this style preference can’t be indulged when the temperatures drop. Despite it seeming like an insurmountable task, somehow your child has to get into long pants, socks, and some sort of sweatshirt.
We can all imagine it; we’re running late, the dog is barking, our child is running around naked, and school lunches aren’t even packed. In an effort to get out of the door, we let our child put on whatever clothes they want, just so we can leave the house. The morning ends up in a chaotic mess of screaming, crying, rushing, and scrambling. Not fun.
This is not the environment in which you want to introduce new winter clothing to your child. A change to the normal routine is going to be stressful for your child and should not be rushed into under chaotic circumstances.
It can be scary to wear bigger and bulkier clothes that feel more restrictive and unnatural. For our kids that love their routines, replacing a comfy shirt with a bulky sweater can be a constant annoyance that sets a bad tone for the rest of the day.
So, what can you do? Make winter clothing apart of your normal routine very early on.
Before the worst of winter arrives, have your child practice putting on and wearing winter clothes. Develop positive relationships with your child’s winter clothes by having stress free experiences with them. To start this positive relationship out on the right foot, go to the store with your child and have fun picking out winter clothes. Talk up the fun of having new clothes and get your child excited about wearing them. Letting your child help with picking out the clothing will let them feel in control, which will ease the transition.
Winter Clothes and Tactile Sensitivity
There’s also a huge tactile sensitivity aspect to winter clothing. Unlike light and flowy t-shirts, winter clothing can be heavy and scratchy, which can instantly set a child’s sensory system ablaze.
A great way to combat tactile sensitivity in the winter is to have your child wear a base layer. A base layer can be any pants and long sleeve shirt that your child is comfortable in. With the fabric of this base layer covering their arms and legs, there’s less chance that any foreign fabrics will rub against their skin. This will let you add more layers to your child’s outfit without their sensory system going into overdrive.
For a deeper dive into tactile sensitivity, check out this previous post: 5 Effective Ways to Tackle Tactile Defensiveness and Sensitivity
Check out a list of sensory friendly clothing companies in this article from Friendship Circle.
2) Get Your Child Excited About Winter Activities
Winter is full of family fun. Ice skating, tree decorating, cookie baking, carol singing, spending time with family, the list goes on and on. All of these activities, while fun, can be overwhelming for your child with autism or SPD.
Once you know what your winter plans are going to be, get your child excited about them. Talk about the positive aspects of going to grandma’s for Christmas or attending the school holiday party. This is the time to turn up the holiday magic and let your child know how much fun the holidays can be.
As you discuss your holiday plans, it’s also important to go over the logistics and details. When your child is routine oriented, it can be hard to enter a new circumstance with little knowledge of what’s to come. Prepare your child for the expectations of the upcoming winter events. Tell them about the holiday songs, the crowded shopping stores, and places you’ll be staying while on vacation.
After you’ve talked about the details, practice them. Play Christmas songs in July, get used to going to the store on busy days, and spend the night at a friend’s or a hotel. By turning the unusual into the ordinary, you’ll help your child become accustomed to your holiday plans before they even happen.
Start at Home
If the thought of winter events away from home sounds overwhelming, incorporate some winter family fun into your home routine. By introducing your child to new things at home, you’ll have a safe environment for experimentation and mistakes. Once your child is comfortable with new things at home, it’s easier to get them ready for events outside of the home. For some creative and fun ideas on winter sensory activities you can do at home, check out this fantastic blog post from Fun at Home with Kids
Bring Parts of Your Routine with You
If you haven’t already been planning ahead for the holidays, don’t introduce new things at the last minute. The holidays aren’t the time to do unnecessary stressful things—there’s enough stress in the holidays to begin with.
If your child has a favorite outfit, let them wear it to the holiday party. If your child likes to use a certain spoon while they eat, let them use it during family dinner. If you child has a favorite stuffed animal, let them bring it.
While your child may not be the most stylish person in the winter fashion magazine, you may be able to prevent a meltdown, which is much better than any hot trend.
Aside from bringing comfort items with you to your holiday activities, also look for ways to introduce normalcy into the structure of your winter activities. Try to eat lunch at the same time when you’re on vacation and continue to take your shoes off at the door, even when you’re at grandma’s. Keep as much of your routine as possible and only change what absolutely needs to be changed.
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3) Embrace Traditions
There’s no better way to get your child accustomed to winter than by doing the same thing every year. For children with autism who are routine oriented, developing a set of traditions that occur every year can be the big difference between a chaotic winter season and a peaceful one. Having reoccurring traditions allows you to prepare your child for winter all year long. Reminisce about winters past and get excited about the one coming up. When there are certain activities, events, and objects that become a constant every single winter, your child will become more and more mentally prepared for each winter that passes.
4) Get Ready for the Winter Blues
The change in the weather and sunlight during the winter can be challenging for all of us, which means it can be especially challenging for our kids on the spectrum or with sensory issues. We can’t play outside as long, it’s harder to wake up in the morning, and the days are cold and dreary. Along with it, usually comes the winter blues.
Whether it’s a slight dip in mood or full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder, this isn’t something to take lightly. Talk with your child’s doctor or Occupational Therapist if you’re noticing mood related issues in winter.
5) Accept that Change will Happen
Despite all of our best efforts at creating routines and maintaining traditions, things will inevitably change. That winter jacket that you finally got your child accustomed to will be too small next year, the favorite ice rink down the road will close, or grandma will move to a new house.
There’s no way to ensure that every winter will be the same as the last, nor would we want to. It’s important that our kids learn to grow, adjust, and become comfortable with change. While it’s important to maintain consistency during particularly stressful times, it’s also important to encourage new experiences when the time is right.
The backbone of the tips above is long-term practice. If you start to work on changes in July, they won’t be weird or scary in November. Keep practicing the skills your child will need for a successful winter. It may not happen this winter, or the next. But, with practice, your child will see improvements that will make life easier.
None of this is quick, but the benefits last longer than the holiday carols. The work you do all year long to prepare for winter will serve a positive role for your child for their entire life as they continue to face life’s challenges.