Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!: Is this an Autistic Sensory Issue?

by J

“Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!” If I hear this exclamation one more time I *may* crawl out of my skin. For as long as my son has been wearing shoes, he has had quite the affection for them. I think I really first noticed something with shoes around a year of age. Well, I guess that is when the majority of his quirks started to come a bit more in focus. He LOVES wearing shoes. He also loves taking them off and then demanding that they be put right back on. At first, he just wanted them on… ALL. OF. THE. TIME. Bedtime, nap time, dinner time, snuggle time, bath time.

Yes folks, bath time.

Now, I could allow the sleeping in shoes and the snuggling in shoes… but bathing? No, no, you simply cannot wear your shoes in the bath tub. Oh the tantrums we have had over no shoes in the bath tub.

Eventually, the shoe issue moved from wanting them on all of the time, to wanting them on, but taking them off when he is stressed, bored or otherwise unhappy. Have we spent too much time in the car? Shoes must come off! Too long at the grocery store? Goodbye shoes! Did his favorite show just end? Well, better take those shoes off! And so the battle begins. This week, I made the error of purchasing S shoes that have laces. Based on his frantic reaction of absolute panic, you would have thought the laces were going to eat time alive. Lessoned learned.

Here is an average day involving shoes:

S wakes up, happy and babbling. I go into his room to find a happy, smiling boy, arms reached and asking for a hug. We snuggle for maybe a minute or two and then it starts… “shoes! shoes!” as he points in the direction of his shoes. So, we get out of bed and I start to change his diaper. The exclamations get louder and more frantic. He does not want to wait until a diaper change is over, he wants shoes on and he wants them on NOW. Obviously diapers, pants and socks all need to go on before shoes and, as the dressing process progresses, the cries for shoes get more frantic and more desperate. Eventually, we get to shoes and genuine joy and relief washes over both of us. We can now move on with our day.

Only, it doesn’t end there. Not ten minutes later are we sitting to eat breakfast when round two of “shoes! shoes!” begins. You see, if he is stressed during breakfast (maybe it took too long, maybe it’s not what he wanted to eat- you get the picture) he kicks off his shoes. However, since he always wants to have his shoes on, he then immediately cries in a panic (sometimes before he is even finished taking them off) for me to put them back on. It is relentless and exhausting. Refusing to put them on simply sends him into a frantic tantrum and further into the ‘autistic abyss’ and I’m not a fan of watching my child disappear before my eyes. So, I put them on. Only, anywhere from a few hours to as little as a minute later- the shoes are off again and the demands to put them back on have returned. Rinse and repeat about a million times throughout the day.

There have been a few times where I have managed to get him to watch tv, on the couch, sans shoes. All will seem well in the world until he stands. Here, he will immediately drop to the floor, grab his foot while screaming “foot! shoes! foot!” and banging his foot on the floor. He is frantic and sounds panicked- like he is on a sinking ship and the application of shoes is the only thing that will save him and his family from dying a painful death. It is heartbreaking. It is frustrating. It is something I have no idea how to handle.

Early in S’s weekly therapy sessions, I discussed these concerns with his teachers. We have tried slippers, sandals, footy pajamas (this was a freaking disaster) and all sorts of things to get his focus away from shoes. The slippers and the sandals worked for a while, but in the end, it always came back to shoes. At this point, S’s service coordinator has suggested scheduling a consultation with an occupational therapist, in hopes that they can give us a better perspective on how to handle the shoe issue, as well as a few other possible sensory issues that S may have… Long pants? Not gonna happen. Dirty hands? Better have a clean rag handy! Blanket? For snuggles only- don’t bother putting it on. And clothes? Well, just this past week have we gotten him to keep his clothes on all day and night. It’s nice to go to the grocery store without your child screaming “off! off!” while tugging on his pants and shirt.

I guess this is just one of the many added joys of raising a child with autism. The hard part, is figuring out what is just normal toddler behavior and what is the autism. I mean, if not wanting to wear clothes is just a part of S’s normal toddler development, than I have no problem putting my foot down and saying ‘no, you must wear clothes in the living room’. I will deal with the inevitable tantrum to follow. However, if there is some sort of autistic sensory issue that makes wearing clothes incredibly uncomfortable for my child, then no, no, he does not have to wear them while chilling on the couch with his family. So, how do I know which one it is? Where is my magic ball that tells me what my child needs? Or really, why can’t my child tell me what he needs?  Because really, at two years of age, my child should be able to communicate to us more than repeating a word twice in a demanding tone.

Being a parent is hard enough when you are just dealing with the everyday challenges of raising a child. When you toss in autism it becomes that much harder. S is much less verbal than other children his age (though, much more verbal than many autistic children his age- for that I am very thankful). However, because of this, I am less confident in my decisions with what I allow and don’t allow S to do or have. If I knew that a behavior was or was not related to autism, I think I could determine the best reaction and stick to it… but I don’t know.  Communication with S is pretty limited and, as a result, I am always second guessing myself. This makes it harder to be consistent and guess what? Autistic children thrive with consistency. How is that for a double load mommy guilt? Autism really knows how to play its cards.