a navigation card for putting on a shirt - visuals for teaching a child with autism dressing skills

Teaching Our Children with Autism Dressing Skills, so They Can become Independent in ADL Skills

This is our second article on teaching ADL skills. Today we will discuss some strategies to teach our children with autism dressing skills. Our previous article was on teaching independence in bathing.

(ADL is a medical abbreviation for Activities of Daily Living)

Autism Dressing Skills – Teaching Independence in ADL Skills

The article will discuss critical strategies for teaching children with autism dressing skills. We will discuss how to encourage motivation to get dressed independently.

Getting dressed includes several components. Each stage is a different development and requires consideration. Different children perform the steps according to their ability, and not necessarily according to the correct order of actions.

Independently Choosing What to Wear

What actions are required in choosing clothes to wear from the closet?

  1. Opening the closet and/or the clothes drawer
  2. Pulling out the clothes (without spilling the whole closet out)
  3. Choosing an appropriate garment for the situation/weather
  4. For advanced students: matching clothing details to the situation

Opening the closet or a drawer and finding your way inside requires motor skills that not every child naturally has. Choosing a shirt from a stack without completely turning over the entire wardrobe is not that simple either.

In addition, they are required to think about the situation for which they are dressing and to choose an appropriate garment. For example, long and warm clothes for a cold day or festive clothes for a party.

Matching clothing details visually. In other words, choosing clothes is a much more complicated step. It requires a higher mental capacity than putting on the clothes themselves.

How to Teach Your Child to Choose Clothing Independently

Of course, the process depends on the child’s abilities.

Schedule a time for relaxed work. Don’t teach during the stress of the morning routine.

First of all, we work to develop motor skills. Then, gradually integrate work on the understanding of situations.

Work on the technical operation of opening the closet and removing a garment. Emphasize a logical order of clothing: the underwear parts, then the pants, etc…

I recommend putting each piece of clothing in a designated place (shelf, drawer, box). Label the place with a small picture or writing until the child learns.

Encourage the child to prepare an outfit to wear and put it in a designated place for the next morning.

Little by little, even in stressful situations, they are given more and more opportunities to perform the actions independently.

How to work on understaning the situation and proper choice of clothing

To teach a child with autism dressing skill (or any other complicated process), it’s a good idea to break down the process into small steps:

  1. Look out the window with the child. Is it day or night? Should we choose day clothes or pajama clothes?
  2. Is it hot or cold now? Should we wear short or long
  3. Present the situation we are preparing for. That is – going to an educational setting, to the pool, to a playground, and so on.
  4. Try to guide the child to think by himself what should be worn. Asked them what clothes will we wear?

Dressing up independently

Even with autism, dressing skills are techniques that should improve with age.

You should adjust the technique to the child’s level and physical needs. Start by sitting on a chair (especially if they have a balance problem or hand tremors).

I used two different techniques with my two older children. One of them suited Dolev and was based on images in the principles of AAC. While for Abigail, I used the action-story method. These methods might not work for you. Think out of the box.

Using AAC for routine actions that require multiple steps

We took a picture of the child first dressed only in underwear and wrote above – “I wear underwear”. And so on for every item of clothing, including socks and shoes. Finally, we put the pictures on the wall in order. This is how we created a navigation card.

a navigation card for putting on a shirt - visuals for teaching a child with autism dressing skills

Every time he needed to get dressed, we first stood in front of the pictures we hung on the wall in the bedroom, and handed him one item at a time in order.

Today, he knows how to dress and picks his own clothes. But, we still need to check at the end of the process that he did it properly.

I used the second method with my daughter Abigail, who has ADHD. And today I’m also trying it with 4-year-old Nevo, who is relatively high-functioning autistic.

When she was younger, it was difficult for her to get dressed. There was even real anxiety around this activity.

Teaching ADL skills with an action-story

One day I had a quiet night shift at work in the hospital. So I wrote Abigail a story.

In the story, the confused girl put on the wrong clothes. After each item, there was an explanation of how to actually wear it.

She loved the story so much, that I told it every time I dropped her off in kindergarten.

All kindergarten children knew how to recite it by heart.

Of course, like all girls, she also went through the period when she only wore ‘party’ dresses to kindergarten. But it has more to do with boundries and that, friends, is a story for another article.

The action-story method may work for a child with autism to learn dressing skills, but usually we would prefer a social story. Visuals are very important. Action-stories are similar to social story principles but without pictures.

Motivating a child with autism to learn independent dressing skills

Many children are able to dress themselves, but they refuse to do it themselves.

For example, with 4-year-old Nevo, dressing has become a military operation in the last two years. He prefers to be naked.

We tried everything with him including bribery and threats. Little by little we discovered that if we dress him in Spiderman clothes our chances will increase.

For Abigail, the action-story was enough.

For Dolev, simple encouragement and exclamations of what a big and smart boy were enough.

Every child is different and you will have to try and find what will motivate your child.

More tools to support the process

It is very possible that the methods we worked with will not fit your needs like a glove. There are other ways to achieve the goal of independence. What is important is not to give up and take the reins in your hands.

Utilize your paramedical team to tailor the right process to your needs. A good behavior analyst will be able to direct you and make the process more accurate.

I would be happy to help you and accompany you in the process of the child’s independence. You are welcome to contact me for guidance.

The issue can be supported with existing aids in the market. A variety of books on getting dressed* are already available in bookstores. Practice dressing up with toys where you need to dress-up a figure* with different clothing. You can let them stick clothing stickers* on a page, put together puzzles*, and more…

(Links marked with and asterisk (*) lead to products on the Amazon website, where we get a small commission.)

Use your Paramedical team

Utilize paramedical staff members to refine the method of imparting life skills. They will usually have creative ideas. Sometimes you can also borrow supporting equipment from them.

Consult with parents and other professionals in our parenting Facebook group.

In conclusion

Note that actions that are supposedly simple, sometimes consist of many steps. This makes it hard for some children with autism to learn dressing skills. You need to break down the complex operation. Make it accessible to the child in a way that is clear to him.

Use tools such as navigation cards, social stories, and AAC, to support the process visually.

The principles written in this article can be used to teach a variety of ADL skills. You can see how this manifests itself in our other articles on independence: weaning from diapers, independent bathing, and feminine hygiene.

It is also recommended to read ideas for treating a sensory processing disorder. This can be very significant when teaching a child with autism dressing skills. For example, if you notice that it is difficult for a child to wear certain clothing, it is possible that it is too uncomfortable for them.

Shira Reiner – developmental nurse and parent guide

It takes a village to raise a child

I recommend looking for support groups with experienced special needs parents. For this purpose, we have opened another Facebook group for parenting skills. This is in addition to our Stem cell therapy support group for families looking for information about the treatment based on umbilical cord blood or stem cells. Both of these groups are mainly for Hebrew speakers but you are welcome to join if you think it can benefit you.

For those who are not active on Facebook, join our silent WhatsApp group, where you will receive notifications about events we organize. Again most of these will be in Hebrew, but you can catch the odd English lectures. You can find recordings of these on our youtube channel.

There are many experienced parents in social media groups. You are also welcome to contact us of course for parental guidance or any of our other services.

Our Blog

The Autism Essentials Israel blog is written by Hagai and Shira Reiner, two parents of children with special needs – autism, epilepsy, and more. We focus on the essentials of raising special needs children in Israel, but much of our content will be relevant globally


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