Autism Resources

How To Teach Your Child To Dress Themselves

Joshua Sleeper February 7, 2022

Learning how to get dressed is a major milestone—one that can be tricky for all children to learn.

From shirt buttons and pant zippers to shoelaces and jackets, children must utilize their fine motor skills and exercise independence to successfully dress themselves for the day. For children with autism, getting dressed can feel even more daunting. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to help teach your child dressing skills. 

Read more: Autism and Independent Living Skills

We’ve pulled together some tried and true strategies to help your child learn how to get dressed by themselves, using tenets of ABA therapy, such as visual aids, reinforcement, prompt fading, and more. Here are some ways to help teach your child with autism dressing skills. 

Set Children Up for Success in Dressing Themselves

There are a few measures you can take at home to help your child with autism learn to dress themselves. 

Choose the Right Clothing

When teaching any child skills for how to dress themselves, the key is to start simple. After all, putting on our own clothing isn’t a skill we are born with. Beginning with less challenging articles of clothing, such as socks, t-shirts, or shorts with an elastic waistband can really help.

Because many children with autism also have sensory issues, it helps to shop for clothing which is seamless, tagless, and soft all over (or at least of a uniform texture). Tags, seams, and materials which are scratchy, tight, or too stiff can make the task more difficult (and associate the act of putting on clothing with unfavorable sensory stimuli). Remember that sensory sensitivity also can apply to how a certain fabric sounds when it moves, or how a specific material looks.

Pick clothes that feature your child’s favorite colors, characters, and numbers for best results. It can be helpful to get your child a variety of options, especially if you’re unsure of your child’s preferences. 

Make a Dressing Plan Ahead of Time

Giving your child more agency in selecting their clothing can encourage independence and confidence, which help improve all life skills. In the same way, it helps to pick out your child’s outfit the night before. That way, they can have all the time they need to choose what exactly they would prefer to wear. Prepping ahead of time like this also helps cut down on decisions that they’ll need make in the moment. It will allow your child to focus on the task at hand. Planning ahead also extends past the process of getting dressed—if your child responds well to learning toys, there are plenty of options online that help teach your child about buttons, zippers, shoelaces, and other trickier clothing steps they might encounter while dressing themselves. 

Break Down the Steps of Getting Dressed

The first step to success for children with autism and getting dressed is to break down the process of dressing into easy to accomplish steps. ABA therapists call this process “task analysis.” It can have a significant impact on teaching your child to dress themself.

For instance, break down the steps of putting on a sock in this way:

  1. Pick up the sock.
  2. Hold the top of the sock in both hands. 
  3. Scrunch up the sock so that it is easier to put your foot in. 
  4. Put your foot in the sock. 
  5. Pull the sock up until it covers your whole foot. 

After completing a task analysis, you can move on to teaching each step of a task, using chaining. Chaining works wonders with the specific process of putting on clothes. This is because you can implement it easily. For instance, try starting by teaching your child to pick up the sock, then hold it correctly. Slowly, you can add on additional steps in the task until they can complete the entire task successfully. The chaining method provides an easy win for your child, which is important for reinforcement.  

Visual aids may also be helpful when teaching your child how to get dressed. Practice dressing your child in front of a mirror to help establish familiarity with where each piece of clothing goes. Before you help your child attempt to start getting dressed, lay out the outfit they’ve chosen to wear on the ground in the form of a body. You can also use printed-out visual aids should your child respond well to these tools. 

Mark Progress with Positive Reinforcement

As your child makes progress with getting dressed, be sure to provide positive reinforcement when they get something right. Even if it’s just part of a step, congratulate them and recognize the progress they’ve made. You can set up a reward system for various steps, tasks, or for getting fully dressed on their own. Just remember that positive reinforcement is important for the growth and development of new skills.

Keep Up the Good Work

As your child starts to get more confident in dressing themself, you can begin to introduce more layers of clothing (like a winter coat) or more complex clothing (like shoes with ties or shirts with buttons). Just remember that you’ll still need to build the basics in the same way as the foundational knowledge. Task analysis, chaining, and reinforcement will be key when adding layers of clothing to the process of getting dressed.

As your child begins to show signs of independence in getting dressed, you can begin prompt fading, or stepping back from having so much involvement in the process. Once your child is proficient at dressing themselves in their bedroom or bathroom, you can slowly begin to generalize the skill to other areas of the home or a relative’s home. 

Generalize the Skill of Getting Dressed

Generalization is important so that your child does not tie their new skill to a specific location, piece of clothing, or environment. When you start to generalize the skill, it’s important to start from the very beginning. For example, if your child mastered putting on their socks in their bedroom and now you want them to practice at grandma’s house, go back to the very first step of picking up the sock.

Last but not least, remember that, for children with autism, consistency is very important. Be sure to establish a plan for how you want to teach your child to dress themself and keep to that plan. By utilizing ABA therapies like chaining, prompt fading, task analysis, and reinforcement, you should help your child see success in learning to dress themself. 

If you need help making a plan, or to talk with one of our licensed ABA therapists, contact us today.