Sensory Friendly Clothing and Why Shirts That Give Big Hugs Can Help
Updated: Aug 21, 2022
Too loose, too tight, wrong fit—kids with sensory issues can be very resistant to clothing that doesn’t feel right on their body. When a child's tactile system (their sense of touch) doesn’t function typically, a tactile sensation that’s no big deal to a neurotypical kid might be a huge deal and very anxiety-provoking.
While some prefer the loose feel of an oversized t-shirt, loose cotton shorts or skirts, or Crocs clogs, some kids with sensory issues crave tighter clothing. Snugly-fitting clothing or even specially designed and made compression clothing that provides even pressure against the skin can feel like a big hug, calming and organizing a child’s system as an actual hug might do.
I spoke recently Susan Donohoe of Kozie Clothes to get some insights into what features she was considering when designing clothing for kids with sensory processing issues. Susan is a pediatric occupational therapist with several certifications related to sensory processing disorder who has been a practicing OT (occupational therapist) for over 30 years. She’s also the mother of six kids. Observing one of her daughters struggle with sensory issues, along with seeing the difficulties kids she was working with in schools were having, inspired her to design sensory-friendly clothing that would help with self-regulation and be comfortable for kids who, like her daughter, have tactile sensitivities. Susan began with weighted vests and later added compression clothing such as shirts and pants. Getting the self-regulation features (weight and pressure) right was important, but she also felt style was important.
“I noticed products used to help children regulate behavior were usually stigmatizing, ugly, and ‘one size fits all,’” Susan says. “And they were only used properly when the OT was present. This was not sensory comfort by any means. How children view themselves and how they feel in their environment can enhance the social and emotional quality of life when that child feels organized and calm.”
Now, some kids couldn’t care less about looking different as long as they’re physically comfortable. But not all kids with SPD are the same. And not all social or classroom situations are either. Parents and professionals can honor and empower kids by respecting their need to feel good physically and emotionally as they choose what to wear and get dressed. Having sensory-friendly clothing available makes it easier for kids to tolerate clothing they have to wear, whether it's for school or an event, for play, for being at home, for sleeping, or for outdoor activities such as swimming at the beach or sledding down a hill.
What are some of the features that can help a child with sensory issues feel good in their clothes? For starters, inconsistency in texture can be very distressing: think seams, elastic at wrists and ankles, the back of an applique, zippers, and clothing tags that touch the skin. Kozie Clothes sells compression clothing made of non-cotton material to ensure four-way stretch with memory—a fabric that’s “well suited for lower-tone children—or individuals with burns,” Susan explains. (As an OT, she has a lot of experience in burn therapy, so she was keeping children who are burn patients in mind along with kids who have sensory processing disorder. In fact, she has some clothing for medically fragile kids on her site, too.) Some of the features she knew she wanted her sensory-friendly clothes to have included:
true-to-size fit (not too big and not too small)
stylish design (as I mentioned)
tear-away tags (tags are usually a different texture from the clothing fabric and therefore, noticeable even when they aren’t scratchy)
soft fabrics that weren’t bulky and didn’t bunch up (when fabric bunches up, it changes the sensations against the skin)
zippers with neoprene chewable pulls (for oral sensory seeking)
Velcro fastenings (easy to use when kids have fine motor difficulties)
an inside pocket with a built-in fidget (handy for kids who use fidgets for self-regulation)
Are some of these features important to your child? As a parent looking for clothing that will work for your child, think about what is working for him or her already. What qualities do their favorite shirts have?
Maybe your child prefers compression clothing that is snug and has better self-regulation when he wears it: She doesn’t have as many meltdowns. She has better focus. She doesn’t get so giddy and silly that she can’t easily return to a calm and attentive state. She doesn’t get crabby and then have a hard time shaking that irritability. A child with self-regulation difficulties doesn’t have good control over her mood, focus, and activity level. Susan shared with me a quote from one of her customers who said, “My son just started wearing his compression shirt. Two full days later and no behavioral outbursts! We're convinced it's helping.” That consistent tactile input that offers deep pressure can be marvelously calming. My own son loves to wear snug knit caps—we have a rotating collection of them. He will tell you he thinks better and feels more comfortable and focused when he’s got that cap on.
If your child is verbal, you can ask them why they like certain articles of clothing and don’t like others. (And you can try out clothes that you pick up cheap because they’re used. If that well-laundered and softened sweatpants or swim shirt from the Goodwill or church rummage sale doesn’t work for your kiddo, you’re not out much money as you continue to play detective in the Case of the Clothing My Child Will Tolerate.)
If your child isn’t able to verbalize what clothing works for her and why, observe her behavior. Susan says of one of her daughters, “At the toddler stage, she was very averse to certain fabrics and noises such as the vacuum or thunder….She also demonstrated a lack of openness to anything that didn’t fall right within her comfort zone and would have a strong emotional response. I decided I would observe her and try to map out what she was trying to tell me through these behaviors. I determined that many of her reactions were in response to fears about things that were not obvious or typical.” Can you relate?
When my son was too young to communicate with me verbally, working on my observational skills helped me figure out what he needed. For many parents, sensory smart journaling, noting behaviors in different situations and keeping track of what is and isn’t working for a child you want to remain on an even keel, can be invaluable. That’s especially true when a child will wear a clothing item one day but then pitch a fit if you suggest they wear it on another day! Kids with sensory issues can definitely challenge our observation, detective, and creative skills. But as Susan says, “Every child is special and deserves to feel comfortable.”
Figuring out what pants you can get your child to wear can help her see that you care enough to help her find what works for him—and for you. There is such a thing as dressy sweatpants, and tights or compression clothing underneath formal clothes for that wedding your family will be attending might be key to her being able to handle the sensory intensity of a large gathering. Work together to find solutions. And remember, when our kids feel and are respected and heard, they have fewer frustrations which can lead to fewer meltdowns and more trust in us as their parents. Being more comfortable in their clothing can help our kids focus and attend at school or at any activity that’s important for them.
If you’re interested in learning more about sensory-friendly clothing for your kids, you’ll find loads of tips, strategies, and resources in Raising a Sensory Smart Child, and you’ll find sensory-friendly clothing items for babies through kids size 16 (XL) on the Kozie Clothes site.