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Winter is Coming: Weathering Seasonal Sensory Challenges

Winter is Coming: Weathering Seasonal Sensory Challenges

Many parents know the struggle that can come with getting our kids to bundle up in the colder months. An occupational therapist at The Bancroft School shares strategies to help minimize challenges and preserve parents’ peace of mind. 

By Samantha Price
Occupational Therapist, The Lindens Program 

Not long ago, I came across a “Game of Thrones”-themed meme that caught my eye: “Brace Yourself. Winter is Coming.” It was a call-out to parents of children with Autism who face a struggle every winter over getting their children to wear heavier winter clothes.

It made me think about my own experiences, both as a mother and as an occupational therapist who has worked with hundreds of students with special needs through the years. We all know the struggle, whether it’s with the teenage boy who prefers to wear shorts and a hoodie, even in the most bitter cold; the kid who hates knit hats; or a child with more severe sensory sensitivities who might melt down over wearing bulky coats, long pants, or heavier socks and shoes.

Children might be averse to a piece of clothing for any number of reasons. But the truth is: We all just want to be comfortable. At the same time, as parents, we have a responsibility to make sure our children are safe, which includes being dressed weather-appropriately. How do we strike that balance? 

A small child is bundled up in a winter jacket. He is standing outside in the cold.

Here are a few strategies you might try as the temperatures start to dip, to preserve both their warmth, and your peace of mind. Give them a choice. 

For many children, simply presenting options might do the trick. A few you might consider:

  • Shoes: If big, heavy sneakers or boots are uncomfortable, look for lightweight sneakers, slip-on shoes or even a pair of fleece-lined moccasins.
  • Mittens may be easier to put on than finger gloves, or your child may prefer a fleece glove to a knit material. Try a few options, and see if something sticks!
  • Earmuffs, knit caps and ear warmers are all great choices – although some kids may prefer the pressure of a knit cap. (This is also the best option for warmth, as heat escapes from the top of the head.)

Seek sensory-friendly options. Your child might be bothered by tags, seams, zippers, a certain type of material; the possibilities are endless. Fortunately, many stores and online retailers offer affordable and easy-to-find, sensory-friendly clothing. A quick Amazon or Google search will yield a variety of options for tagless clothes, seamless socks and compression clothing. In my experience, compression clothes, especially – pants, socks and even undershirts – can go a long way toward making children more comfortable. Additionally, Target has a clothing line called Cat and Jack that now includes adaptive sensory-friendly clothing options for children. 

Winter coats have come a long way, too, with newer technology that allows for plenty of options that are thin and lightweight, but still deliver plenty of warmth. Try social learning tools. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, these tools – some of which can be found online -can help teach children about what’s appropriate, and why.

Consider safety – but pick your battles. Sometimes, it’s OK to decide that a battle just isn’t worth it. Safety should be paramount, so consider the temperature, the conditions outside, and how long your child might be exposed to the elements. If he or she has trouble processing or understanding how cold they are, you might think it’s more important to make sure they’re bundled up and warm. But if they’ll be inside for most of the day, you might be willing to concede something lighter. If the ground outside is dry – and, again, if they’ll be indoors most of the day –  you might decide you’re OK letting them wear Crocs and socks instead of bulky sneakers or boots. 

If you feel you need additional support, or can’t address your concerns alone, talk to your child’s medical provider or the child study team at school; they can refer you for specialized services. An occupational therapist can provide a sensory assessment, identify modifications you may be able to make, and help to develop a program to address their particular sensitivities. So much of parenthood is just trying to do the best you can in a given situation. You know your child, and you’ll always have their best interests at heart, so trust your gut.


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