The Problem with the Existence of Buttons

My son has many clothing quirks. Some of his earliest ones were refusing to ever wear socks or shoes, not wearing any fabric which wasn’t the plainest of cottons, and an aversion to zips. His clothing issues never seem to really go away, they just evolve to various extremes and different intensities. For example, the never wearing socks at one stage became always wanting to wear socks (and being otherwise very upset and anxious). Whilst he still always wants to wear socks now, his reaction if he doesn’t get to is less severe, though he will perseverate on the matter.

Growing up, buttons appeared to be a non-issure. His style of clothing was the over-the-head cotton t-shirts, the sort that didn’t typically sport even decorative buttons around the neck-line. But his school uniform and most of his shirts now, do have buttons at the neck-line, and along with the buttons has come the problem with the existence of buttons.

He always wants them buttoned all the way up, even when it’s very hard to do the buttons up (when they’re intended to be decorative), and even when doing up the top-button makes the t-shirt uncomfortably tight around his throat. If I try to persuade him that they don’t have to be done up every time, and don’t have to be done up all the way to the top either, the reaction is upset and upsetting: He will desperately try to do them all up himself, while repeating over and over that he wants or needs them done up, and his eyes start to glisten with tears while his anxiety ostensibly builds. If he can’t get them done up, it can end in him shaking and in tears, while he continues to blindly fumble at the buttons.

The other day he’d obviously had enough and declared he wanted the buttons cut off his shirt altogether. That’s one way around the issue, but obviously an unhelpful long-term solution, especially when uniforms are required in his life.

It usually helps in these situations if I can give him very clear-cut rules: Something along the lines of “always do up your buttons when..” and “leave all the buttons undone when” and also maybe “buttons can be left half-way done up when…” The problem is I can’t seem to formulate the appropriate rules. Whether to do buttons up or not is somewhat to do with formality, but also to do with comfort, warmth, appearance and at the end of the day, personal preferences. Trying to piece all these considerations into some sort of universal button-rule has been un-successful so far. The rule would need to be simple to understand and to apply.

Unfortunately the rule can’t be “when mummy tells you to do them up, you do them up,” this never suffices for my son anymore. He does understand the importance of authority figures, but he is a “why” child, and passionately so. If he’s told to do something (or not do something) he requires a clear explanation of why. Without it he gets upset and confused and is unsatisfied; he will not let the matter rest and it can escalate into an issue all its own, with its own attendant anxieties and obsessive behaviours, as he tries to sort his world into predictable and understandable pieces.

Of course, it’s never really just about buttons in themself. Or socks. Or zips. It’s about providing my son with rules that help order his life, and about managing and controlling his anxiety levels, regardless of the cause of the anxiety. Unfortunately life will throw him unknowns and curve-balls, and he needs to be able to self-soothe (in appropriate ways), and to be able to adjust to circumstances as they change. One my roles in his life is to provide him with a growing body of rules that he can then apply through-out the rest of his life, since he doesn’t simply pick up those rules by being around people and being part of society. But I don’t know definitive “button rules,” and considering that this has become a daily and unavoidable issue, I really need to come up with some at this point.

Perhaps someone reading this can suggest a simple rule; something that gets us out of the current two extremes on offer: Either the buttons are done all the way up, or they get cut off. I’ve become pretty good at recognising, responding to, and problem-solving my son’s various issues, but I am currently struggling with the problem with the existence of buttons.

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20 Responses to The Problem with the Existence of Buttons

  1. Hilary Stace says:

    I hate school uniforms. There is enough to cope with at school for autistic kids without having to conform in what you wear as well. I was lucky to find schools for my son that did not have uniforms. He would never have coped with the scratchy wool shorts or fiddly ties. Buttons, zips and laces were problematic for many years. He also won’t wear jeans or anything denim. He could wear the soft fabrics he has always preferred. Temple Grandin talks of this need to have clothing that doesn’t irritate and modifies hers or makes her own.
    Non uniform schools are also more inclusive of those who dress is part of their identity or culture. Although most kids wear jeans and t-shirts there are some whose clothing style is more personal, colourful or eccentric – indicating that their creativity is being allowed to flourish at school. Uniforms are also more expensive and often washed less than ordinary clothes. Start a movement to get rid of your school’s uniform and increase its celebration of diversity.

    • I fully appreciate your point Hilary, a couple of problems though:

      He’ll have to get used to the idea of wearing uniforms anyway in the work-force more likely than not, or at the very least to wearing a certain standard of dress that may require him to wear clothes he doesn’t prefer. Same with if he joins some sort of extra-cirricular group, good chance they’ll expect a uniform for the sake of “identity and togetherness.” So he’ll have to deal with such issues sooner or later regardless, otherwise he’s restricting his wider options and freedom in life. I’d like to figure out how to help him now if I can, so it’s not a big issue later when it matters even more.

      Second and more immediate issue: The school he attends is as a satellite student; the uniform is set by a school he isn’t enrolled at, but part of the rules for the class students who attend there is that the conform to the dress code of the mainstream kids. They already make allowance for his special shoes (he wears orthotics that require certain shoes), but I think asking a school he isn’t officially enrolled at to allow students not to wear the uniform at all, might be pushing it a bit! The class he attends is the perfect one for him and his current level of need.

      For what it’s worth, the special needs school that he is enrolled through doesn’t have uniforms; they recognise the different needs of the students. So there is at least recognition at that important level of responding to the individual child.

      Appreciate your thoughts though, and I largely agree with your sentiments.

      • Hilary Stace says:

        My son has had to wear a suit and tie occasionally and trousers with a belt not elastic, and even formal evening wear. He does look very smart, and is old enough to understand the very adult concept that temporary discomfort is worth it for the look. But he changes immediately the event is over. On the other hand he hates the feeling of being unclothed, which he also has to tolerate to participate in Special Olympics swimming competitions in which the uniform includes tiny little speedo togs. So I agree sometimes they just have to get used to it (as do the rest of us).

  2. Mac says:

    What about making the rules for shirt type instead of situations?

    • Good thought Mac.

      I had given that consideration but it got quickly un-wieldy. For example, I can differentiate between formal all-button shirts and neck-only cotton shirts, and maybe say for the former do them all but the top one or two, and for the latter leave them un-done (since they’re usually decorative or too tight all done up). But his uniform is like a cotton shift of the second type, and needs to be done up to the second-top button ideally, so that requires a different rule for his uniform. Then of course some cotton neck-only button shirts are not purely decorative and hang too-open if not done up (depending on the style). I’m just not sure if I can make simple rules about buttons and shirts! Each time I think it through it gets too fiddly to be helpful to his level of understanding. I can understand why he just wants them all done to the top since that’s a simple rule he can understand and apply, and it works for the button-up uniform he has to wear 5 times a week (but often not for the home clothes he wear after school each day).

      Maybe I just have to say “all shirts are buttoned all the way up except for the top button” since that will cover most situations. Though that leaves the problem of decorative-only buttons, and it’s not a very accurate rule for life and for formal situations. And he’s definitely going to struggle figuring out when he’s reached the second-to-top button each time. Hmm. Maybe I just have to go for the simplest rule possible and try to build in a very general “sometimes the button rules are different, but this works most of the time” bit. Though he’s unlikely to find that satisfying, and that would probably end up just being “button them all the way to the top,” which isn’t working well right now. I do believe I’m going in circles!

      It sounds so silly to worry so much about button rules! But they matter a lot to him, so they have to matter a lot to me too. I need to find some answer / solution that fixes his need for predictable rules, and in turn lowers his anxiety.

      I do appreciate your thought. Perhaps you had some specific rule/s in mind – in regards to shirt type – that I haven’t touched on yet?

  3. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    I’m sorry I’m not much help…how about “loose around the neck unless it’s fancy.”. I was just thinking of myself, I can’t stand anything around my neck…or hosiery. Ew…just the thought gags me.

    If it’s any consolence, I couldn’t help but think of my brother Patrick while reading this. When he was growing up he wore his shirts buttoned up and his belt so tight you would think he would be cutting off the blood flow through his body. With his lopsided glasses, he got called a nerd a lot, or whatever the word was at that time. HIghwater pants, too, as I remember. Well, things change.

    He’s a computer wiz, works for Intel, and has invented things you have on your computer right now, although I can’t tell you what it is exactly.

    This, too, will pass, Mom. Tie a rope and hang on..

    • Love your comment, thank you usethebrain 🙂

      “Loose around the neck unless it’s fancy” definitely has potential. It’s simple and almost always right. He’d just have to get used to judging what would count as loose around the neck, but that should come with time. I’d have to re-word “fancy” but I could make it work, it’s a better word than the one I’d had so far (“formal”). It could deal quite well with the decorative button issue too, since they’re typically not on very fancy clothes, so it would be “loose” if he didn’t try to do them up at all. Yeah, might work. I’ll give it some more thought.

  4. Joanne says:

    You could also have a rule that is a uniform shirt only rule. Maybe have him wear the shirt and then take a picture of him wearing the shirt buttoned appropriately. This picture could be on his closet or dresser door and he could use it to compare whether the way he is wearing his uniform shirt matches the picture. If not, he has to fix it.

    Building off of that, you could have “picture” rules. Pick three main types of shirts (or 2 or 4 or whatever number) and take pictures of him wearing the shirts correctly. If he picks that type of shirt to wear, or the formality of a situation dictates that type of shirt then it has to match the picture.

    My two cents! *hugs*

    • It’s a very good two cents! He does respond well to pictures for learning; I hadn’t thought about using this approach since it’s been so long since I’ve had to do a social story for him, but yes it could work very well. Using pictures can also help over-come the many-different-options issue, he might even enjoy looking at and matching the options. Great idea, I’ll see what I can do with it. Thank you!

      • Joanne says:

        I’ve even heard of the fashionably inept, or even ultra fashionable taking pictures of particular outfits and covering the inside of their closet doors, so that way, they don’t have to try and come up with complete outfits on their own, they just look at the pictures, pick what they want to wear and then grab the individual pieces!

      • It’s got me thinking that this could be a way forward for him in terms of general clothes choice too. He doesn’t currently select his own clothes, I really should be encouraging that more in itself, and your idea could be a help to make that successful too. He doesn’t have a good appreciation of – say – wearing warmer clothes in winter, or “appropriate garment choice;” visual examples would be helpful.

        This is one of the (many) great things about blogging; sometimes you hit a wall for ideas, then someone busts through that wall for you via a comment, and it feeds into solving other issues too. Awesome 🙂

  5. Carolina says:

    I confess I know next to nothing about Australian school uniforms, or really school uniforms in general, so this may be off the mark, but it seems like to start with, you could address the problem of sometimes buttoning things up so tight they choke by articulating a rule that you never button the top button unless you are wearing a tie. I guess I am not much of a fashion monger, but that seems like it would be okay in most situations (all but one button buttoned, I mean). Would that be a helpful rule?

    • Carolina says:

      Oh! Sorry–my computer had not shown me any of the other comments when I made this comment. I see you have addressed suggestions like this already.

  6. shadowedge613 says:

    I like the idea of button guide pictures: I also feel like I would take the path of least resistance, and skip the shirts with strange decorative buttons. My younger sister hated tights, so we came up with alternatives so she didn’t need to wear them. I’m all for making things simpler, especially give the sheer amount of clothing options in the world. But that does not address the heart of the issue, I admit.

  7. mattyangel says:


    When I was in school I had this problem and a teacher helped me with pictures.

    School Uniform pictures
    Poloshirt pictures
    Dress shirt pictures
    Pajamas pictures

    That showing how each one is suppose to be

    Laminate the cards and put a whole punch through them, then put it on a plastic ring and he will have a dress book :)! like I use to have in high school.

    You might find the same problem with some zippers later to that go all the way up.

    Also if doing the buttons is really hard, cause I can’t do buttons still. You can take them off and get someone to put snaps on instead. Snaps work much better than buttons for doing up and taking off on your own cause you can pull them apart.

    • My son does struggle with doing up buttons too, he can do it but not consistently well. So good idea about replacing with snaps where suitable.

      And yes, I’ve definitely decided to go with pictures, and I like your ring-book idea too. I told my son today that I’m going to make him pictures to help him with the button problem, and he got very excited and stop stressing out about them for a bit. I’ll work on it over the weekend 🙂

  8. mattyangel says:

    Also a problem with buttons is they look like they can be eaten but no matter how much they look like they can, you can’t actually eat them.

    • Clothing would be so much more enjoyable if it was edible! Or at least, lickable; consuming clothing would get quite expensive after a while, licking might be preferable to all-out consumption 🙂

      • Matty Angel says:

        YES!!!!! It would!!!! Bed sheets to. I always end up chewing my sheets when I sleep, So I have to keep things around to chew and bite on. I’m glad my carers don’t mind I do that.

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