Self-help Skills for Autism | 3-Step Guide: How do I teach my child with autism to put on clothes independently? — Autism Partnership Singapore

Self-help Skills: How do I teach my child with autism to put on clothes independently?

Skills trained when a child puts on clothes by themselves

Getting dressed is part of everyone’s daily routine. Although it might seem straightforward to us, it requires a wide range of skills to complete. Some of these skills include sustained attention, body awareness, coordination of our limbs, range of gross and fine motor skills, memory, sequencing of the task, planning, and organisation. 

Therefore, children with autism need to develop these skills before learning to dress themselves independently. For example, the first step is to distinguish between the front and back of their t-shirt, and then place the limbs accordingly. After figuring that out, it involves planning and organising the sequence of steps to put on their underwear before we put on our pants. 

Putting on clothes also requires coordination and motor skills to move our limbs in and out of the clothing. Considering dressing up involves so many skills and steps, it often takes time for our children to be fully independent. However, we can kick start the process early to get our children involved in dressing up once they have developed adequate gross and fine motor skills. 


Step 1: Set aside Time

First, getting our children involved in the dressing-up process requires time and this would mean setting aside time for them to do so. Often, when in a rush, we want things done as quickly as possible, so parents tend to dress them up faster when they’re in a hurry. It is important to allow our children enough time to be involved in the process. 

Step 2: Pick a focus

Secondly, we need to pick one aspect to focus on and practise it well before introducing another new skill to learn. Since dressing up involves different types of clothing, a variety of skills are required.

When your child wears a zipper jacket, button shirt, T-shirt, pants, socks, shoes, etc., your child needs to pay attention to different details and have various skills to do so. If you were to introduce too many new skills to your child at once, he or she might become frustrated because of their lack of ability to do them well.

To increase our child’s independence, we want to build their confidence such that when they can do things well, it creates a positive experience for their learning and desire to be independent. A good aspect to first focus on is to select what the child wears most often. For example, if the child wears a t-shirt every day, then it would be good to start from there. First focusing on one aspect of dressing up, makes it easier and builds the child’s confidence when they can quickly master the skill before moving on to something new. 

Step 3: Step 3: Break down the skill into smaller partsStep 3: Break down the skill into smaller parts

After selecting which aspect to focus on, we then need to break the task down into smaller parts. For example, wearing a t-shirt involves discriminating between front vs back, identifying the correct parts where our neck and arms would go and putting our arms and neck through. Simplifying the task makes it easier for the child to pick up the skill. This would also help parents/ caregivers to accurately identify the part that the child can do well in or has challenges with. Some examples of challenges the child may have could be not knowing which part to put their heads into or not recognising the front vs back of the t-shirt. When we recognise that the task involves many smaller parts, we can help our children with the exact part they need help with. 

Next, I will show you an example of simplifying the task of wearing a t-shirt by breaking it down into smaller parts.

  1. Identify the front of the t-shirt. This can be done by identifying the lower collar of the shirt. 
  2. Flip the t-shirt to the back.
  3. Lift the t-shirt flap.
  4. Put it over the head into the neck
  5. Put in one arm
  6. Put in the other arm

After noting the different steps involved, start teaching the skill one step at a time. An additional step is only introduced once the child has mastered the previous step. 

For example: 

  • First, get the child to identify the front of the t-shirt while parents/ caregivers help the child with the rest of the steps. 
  • After practising several times, the child should be able to identify the front of different t-shirts independently. 
  • Then, the child is ready to start learning step two of flipping the t-shirt to the back. Teaching one skill at a time makes it easier for the child to pick up.

Learning a new skill needs practice. Since dressing involves many different skills and steps, it will take time for our children to learn and be truly independent. Having daily practice gives children the repetition they need. This repetition helps the child to learn faster and be more fluent with the skill. 

Other than repetition, parents/caregivers would need to simplify the new skills and make learning a positive experience. By doing so, the learning process would be more enjoyable, and children will gain confidence to learn. 

As we build the child’s confidence in the things they learn and do, it develops their desire to be independent. Even though they may not instantly pick up the skill, what matters is that we give them the opportunity and time needed to learn and try. 

By involving our children in the process of dressing and making it an enjoyable learning experience for them to think and problem solve, this kick starts the journey of their independence!