The love for shoes is not real for many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
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The love for shoes is not real for many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Not a week goes by where I don’t hear: “I can’t get my child to keep their shoes on; or why will my child not wear his/her new shoes?”  The truth is that many children and adults on the Spectrum have tremendous difficulties when it comes to shoes.  Sensory Processing difficulties in children with Autism are one of the main contributing factors but there are others that one should consider.

Think of your own feet; think of shoe-shopping and of how uncomfortable a pair of new shoes can be. I personally can only wear leather shoes. I can also not wear closed shoes at all. Heals are not my friends and neither are flip-flops. I like to feel secure in my shoes. They are not allowed to slip when I walk or push against any part of my foot… I spend many hours a day in my shoes and they need to be comfortable – and I am not Autistic and do not have difficulties processing the world around me.

My non verbal daughter was however not given the same consideration when she was younger. Mommy (that would be me …) would go to the shop and buy either “winter shoes” or “summer shoes”, pink ones mostly with cute pictures on it and she would be expected to wear them because surely she is a size “1” now.

Not once did I consider the actual fit of the shoe for her. What it felt like on her feet. That maybe she also did not like closed shoes or pink for that matter. Maybe the fabric on the inside was too soft or too hard or the one shoe fit better than the other.

Nope this mommy (like many mommies and daddies of young children) bought them and my poor child was expected to wear them no matter how much she protested because for me it was not about the comfort of the shoe for her – it was about her wearing shoes! People have to wear shoes.

My confusion was real – I could not figure out why my child preferred walking barefoot in the freezing cold or on hot surfaces during the heat of summer. I searched the internet and found little to no real explanation other then “it is sensory”. So I made a decision to try a different approach… I decided to give my daughter shoe options!

Before I continue I need to confess that my daughter is profoundly sensory sensitive and she still is not crazy about shoes at the best of times BUT I have at least gotten her to a place where she will wear them when we are out, when we walk to and from the car in both winter and summer and at times in the winter (on those super cold days) – she may actually keep them on for longer periods of time. So in my mind the battle of the shoe-war has been won.

Here are a few of my tips for those parents that struggle with shoes:

  1. When your child first shows signs of “not wanting to wear shoes” don’t do the obvious thing! Take them off is what I mean. Don’t allow the child to “not” wear shoes from a young age. Find alternatives.
  2. All retailers allow exchanges so buy 3 or 4 different pairs of shoes and take them home for your child to try on. Watch their reaction on each pair they try on and listen to your non-verbal child, even if it means going back for another 3 or 4 pairs. If you try enough pairs your child will react positively to at least 1 of the pairs.
  3. Don’t expect your child to wear a new pair of shoes the entire day. Slowly does it … just like we have to walk in our shoes – our children needs to walk in their shoes.
  4. If you find a pair of shoes that the child “loves” to wear you can buy more than 1 pair in different sizes (plan ahead) but this can be dangerous at times because many children with autism do not like change so if they only get to wear 1 type of shoe for years to come you will eventually run out off shoes and then you are going to have a far greater problem so we would prefer you buy a similar pair, maybe in a different colour but make sure you study the shoe your child loves first. It is not just about size – feel the inside of the shoe, the type of sole, open or closed etc.
  5. Be practical at all times. Pretty shoes are not always practical and if your child does not have shoes that support their feet and muscle development injuries are imminent. Children run and play and need to have appropriate shoes for all occasions. Slip slops (whilst great for the beach) are not an everyday wear and play shoe.

Most importantly do not just give up…  keep trying because I can promise you that the day when you least expect it your child will wear shoes!

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, ABA, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum. Read more about this Johannesburg Autism School here.

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