Dressing for the winter - How to get your child ready to be outside

January 17, 2020

It’s well established that individuals with autism thrive on routine and structure. When events or other situations interfere with that routine, it’s challenging for all involved. The change in seasons, and everything that goes along with it, is a transition that threatens the typical routine. The winter is a particularly difficult time of year because of drastic changes to what your child has to wear. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) provides us with a number of strategies to navigate this transition and make it easier. 

Jess Baldwin

AnswersNow BCBA

It’s well established that individuals with autism thrive on routine and structure. When events or other situations interfere with that routine, it’s challenging for all involved. The change in seasons, and everything that goes along with it, is a transition that threatens the typical routine. The winter is a particularly difficult time of year because of drastic changes to what your child has to wear. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) provides us with a number of strategies to navigate this transition and make it easier. 

The first part of any seasonal transition is shopping for clothes. Involving your child in this process can be helpful. If your child tolerates shopping well, bring them along. If not, you can look at pictures of coats and winter accessories online so your child can pick them out. Your child will be much more motivated to wear a coat if it has her favorite character, boots if they are her favorite color, etc. Pick up some extras that are different textures to give them choices when it’s time to wear them.

Everything depends on your child and his or her needs, but there are some general strategies. For one, stay away from materials like wool, that could be uncomfortable. Many children prefer the soft feel of fleece. Be mindful of tags and seams. If your child doesn’t like wearing anything too bulky, opt for layers with a thin, but warm, coat on top. If your child doesn’t like hats, try a hooded coat or sweatshirt underneath. 

After you buy your winter clothes, it’s time to start preparing and practicing. Below are some tips. 

  • Put away all summer clothes. Out of sight, out of mind. 
  • Use clear, concise, and direct language. For example “It’s cold outside. We need to wear our coats.”
  • Wearing winter clothes is a non-negotiable, but there is a chance that your child needs to feel the cold for themselves in order to understand the need for a coat. As always, safety is the top priority, but you can try opening the door for a few seconds before your child his coat on. 
  • Help your child practice wearing his winter coat. If this is difficult for your child, find some highly motivating toys or treats for keeping his coat on. Start by having your child wear his coat for five minutes. If this is too much, start at five seconds. If this is too much, start by having your child put on just the sleeve of the coat. Use a visual timer to show your child how much time is left. Then at the end, give your child the treat for wearing his coat. Build up each time you practice.
  • If your child enjoys outdoor winter activities, start by talking about those activities and how much fun they are. Read your child’s favorite books about playing outside in the winter. This will help to build up the “reinforcing value” of wearing a coat.
  • Use social stories. The more individualized the social story is, the more effective it will be. Homemade social stories are great. Depending on your child’s abilities, help them come up with the story, write it, and get pictures. It’s best if you can take actual photos of your child doing the activities, but if that’s not an option, look for photos online or in a magazine. If you get stuck on what to write, here’s a starting point that you can build off of. Be sure to tailor it for your child’s age and preferences. 
I’m _NAME_ and I’m _YEARS OLD_. I love wintertime. My favorite things to do are build snowmen, make snow angels, and have snowball fights. Before I can play in the snow I have to put on my coat, gloves, hat, and boots. These things keep me warm while I’m playing. My mom is so happy when I put on my coat, gloves, hats, and boots. I can’t wait to go play outside!
  • Make a visual schedule or checklist of things to do for getting ready to go outside. It might look something like this.
  1. Snow pants
  2. Boots
  3. Coat
  4. Hat
  5. Gloves
  6. Play in the snow

Now that you’ve prepared and practiced, it’s time to tackle the day to day routine. First, set all of your child’s clothes and outerwear the night before. Give your child two choices for each item. For example, “Would you like to wear your green gloves or your black gloves?”

Wake up at least fifteen minutes early to set yourself up for success. In the beginning, start even earlier. It’s important to set yourself up for success and avoid making the experience even more challenging than it has to be. 

Be sure to have a lot of favorite toys/treats on hand to use as reinforcers for putting on and wearing winter clothes. Although wearing winter clothes is something your child should be doing, it doesn’t mean that she’s not working extra hard to do so. Getting a little treat for putting her coat on or wearing it nicely while outside could make all of the difference. 

As always, it’s a matter of trial and error. Each winter you will learn more and more about your child’s preferences and needs this time of year. The most important tip is not to lose sight of the opportunity to enjoy the season and make new memories with your family. 


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