Why is clothing such a common complaint for those with sensory sensitivity?
It’s easy to be frustrated by sensory-based clothing battles when you feel like getting dressed, especially when choosing an outfit should be an easy task for your teen.
Aside from making you cringe, your teen once again wearing the same beloved and possibly tattered old shirt leads to other hassles: like negative comments from peers, constantly doing laundry to prevent stains and smell, the list goes on.
Not to mention, battles each morning over what to wear means everyone is running late and starting the day off stressed and overwhelmed.
It’s helpful to recognize that you are not alone in this struggle. Clothing challenges and related sensory sensitivities are one of the most commonly noted problems for parents, teens, and children with sensory processing challenges.
Light Touch, Skin Receptors, and All the Wrong Sensory Signals
In a nutshell, the skin is packed with sensory receptors that provide a wealth of sensory information. Next consider how clothes touch a large portion of these skin sensory receptors.
For a lot of people, the brain and sensory system learn to filter out the sensory input from clothing on the skin. Basically, the nervous system figures out that because the sensation is there all the time, it doesn’t mean anything so you don’t need to pay attention to it, you habituate to it.
However, for those who have sensory sensitivity, any sort of discomfort or variation is a constant irritation that simply can’t be ignored.
Part of this is how the tactile system in the skin functions to alert us when something is wrong. Think of pulling away from something hot or removing a pebble from a shoe before it causes injury. For this reason, unpleasant tactile sensation can lead to a flight or fight response, making it hard to concentrate because the brain and body are so super focused on that scratchy shirt or clothing tag.
That clothing seam or tag might not matter to most, but it is a very big deal to the sensory system and can’t be ignored for those who have sensory sensitivity.
Some solutions to reduce tactile irritants in clothing:
Low seam or seamless clothing
Washing shirts several times to soften the material
Buy previously worn shirts from a secondhand store
Purchase socks or clothing that don’t bunch
Chose smooth, soft, and breathable fabrics
As you can see, the tactile system of the skin is powerful and clothing directly interacts with those sensory receptors. Highlighting how your teen’s clothing preferences are rooted in their sensory needs.
Deep Pressure Receptors as a Calming Element of Clothing
Deep pressure is another sensory factor that should be considered when it comes to clothing.
Most clothing is loose so it mainly interacts with the light touch and tactile sensory receptors, which as you’ve already learned, generates an alerting or even stress response.
In contrast, the pressure receptors in the skin or joints create a calming or sensory reorganization response. This is why some kids prefer to wear swimsuits or love snuggling under weighted blankets. It’s because the pressure provides a gentle, comforting squeeze to the pressure system of the body for a calm and regulated nervous system.
There are several ways to incorporate calming deep pressure into a daily routine:
- Wear layers for increased weight and pressure from clothing
- Use Lap blankets or weighted vests when socially acceptable
- Purchase specially designed compression clothing
The element of pressure is frequently overlooked because it’s not a typical feature of clothing. However, the positive elements of focus and regulation can be a powerful game-changer in daily life.
Sensory Characteristics of Clothing are Constant
Since clothing provides constant input throughout the day, it has cumulative positive or negative impact. This is different from other sensory variables which are fleeting or constantly changing.
For example, if you are uncomfortable with the noise in the school hallway, it eventually ends with the ring of the bell.
However, if you leave home with a shirt with a tag that drives you crazy, you’re going to be uncomfortable all day long.
On the flip side, if you’re wearing something comfortable and improves regulation, then it is a constant positive effect.
This makes clothing a secret ingredient when it comes to designing a life that not only avoids sensory distractions but starts to use sensory systems for improved daily regulation.
Eliminating Stress with the Right Clothing
Once you understand the reason behind what you’re seeing, it makes the path to making changes and relieving this stressor easier. It’s not your teen being difficult, rather there is a neurological and sensory reason behind all those clothes complaints.
The good news is, a few modifications and this challenge can be gone. Figure out with your teen which aspects of their clothing make them uncomfortable. Then start selecting clothing to match those parameters. Even better, start including your teen in the process of selecting the right clothing.
At Molly Fuller Designs, we’ve taken the stress out of finding the right clothing for sensory sensitivity, featuring compression shirts with a tagless, flat seam design that promotes comfort and calm.
Shop our collection today!
- Bestbier, L., & Williams, T. I. (2017). The Immediate Effects of Deep Pressure on Young People with Autism and Severe Intellectual Difficulties: Demonstrating Individual Differences. Occupational therapy international, 2017, 7534972. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/7534972