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Am I Listening? Dressing Neurodivergent Children by Vicki Callanan

Posted by Courtney Ellis-Jones on

Am I Listening?
Dressing Neurodivergent Children
by Vicki Callanan 

Olli pulls open the wooden drawers sitting in his bedroom and tips out everything cosied within them. The carefully muted tones of walls and furniture are splashed with bursts of colour as he painstakingly arranges everything according to the rainbow. Flung into the hallway are the discards: multicoloured pieces, items with dots or stripes, anything that doesn’t fit the schema of the moment. The process takes two hours, and once it is complete, it begins all over again. It is a beautiful scene, and I applaud his creativity, but it does not make dressing for a family dinner particularly easy. For the neurodivergent child, (and perhaps for all of us, in ways we do not always grasp), clothes are so much more than just a covering for the body.

As a parent of (at least one, potentially three) neurodivergent small people, part of the journey has been finding a thousand ways to hear my children. Just when I think I have learned their language, it shifts all over again. In choosing clothes for them, in helping them develop a sense of their own style or preferences, in celebrating their choices, my job is to provide them with a palette, to observe with interest, but to get out of their way. 

Whereas Elodin will often choose bright combinations of clothes to express himself, Olli uses non verbal communication methods such as PECs and Makaton to talk with us. Alongside these, he might tug at the neckline of a sweater, chew pensively through his cuffs, or suck the knees of his trousers to begin a conversation. Clothes become another way he can show us he is tired or nervous, excited or happy. Our curiosity, our willingness to hear him in this way, is vital, as is our relinquishing of control. Clothes might get ruined. They might be arranged together in ways we don’t prefer. I might find a sock placed on every long-suffering bannister section between the lounge and the attic. The important question remains: Am I listening?

Dressing a neuro-divergent child requires flexibility, lightning-fast reactions … and layers. At the park, I’m going to need multiple changes of clothing because Olli will need to experience the muddy puddle with all of his senses, usually by full-body rolling in it. In the town centre, he needs to be wearing something distinctive, in case he suddenly runs away and I need to keep him in view. On a Monday morning, I need to be mentally prepared for him to want to wear his pyjama top to school. Clothing, like so many aspects of parenting a child with additional needs, becomes a locus for extra thought, extra planning, and potential chaos.

I smile at Olli, decorating his brand new corduroy dungarees with a layer of thick mud. His differences must be acknowledged, supported and celebrated. Yet, perhaps there is something I can learn from his adoption of everything in his world as a canvas for exploring the senses. Perhaps there is something all of us can learn: knee-deep in tipped out drawers, considering the links between colour and emotion, wrapping ourselves up in the one jumper that helps us feel safe. It all comes back to the same questions, what are these clothes communicating, and are we listening?

Vicki Callanan, parent to four beautiful boys, lives in Kent and writes about parenting, navigating grief, neurodiversity and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. For more from Vicki please visit her Instagram profile.

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