Sensory issues are common among people on the autism spectrum
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
For many families, shopping for back-to-school clothes is more than another errand. It’s a big challenge because their children’s sensory issues make ordinary garments extremely uncomfortable — even painful — to wear.
A tickly tag or garment’s seam easily ignored by other children feels very bothersome to a child with sensory differences. Stiff fabric, bumpy textures and hard garment features like zippers, grommets and buttons rule out many garments, as these cause non-stop irritation. Sensory issues are common among people on the autism spectrum.
“Many children with autism spectrum disorder have unique sensory needs,” said Will Sullivan, Ph.D., assistant professor and licensed psychologist in pediatrics at Upstate Medical University. “However, these needs are not the same for all children. Therefore, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Parents should seek a sensory evaluation by an occupational therapist to better understand their child’s unique needs. “
Some who are not on the autism spectrum also live with sensory issues.
Joyce Wagner, Ph.D., of Restoration Counseling of Rochester provides supervisory services at Mary Cariola Children’s Center, a school for children on the autism spectrum and with learning challenges in Rochester. Paraphrasing autism expert Temple Grandin, Wagner said that people not on the autism spectrum have 10 “cables” wired to their brain, with two going to each of the senses. In autistic children, “some are re-wired,” Wagner said. “They may have four or five going to the sense of touch. It is like a typical person wearing a scratchy wool sweater against the skin. If you can’t get comfortable you can’t calm down. Their skin is super sensitive.”
It’s not a simple preference for soft clothing, which neuro-typical people experience. It’s a necessity to feel comfortable and relaxed.
Children with sensory disorders may have different clothing needs and aversions. For 14-year-old Ian Latten of Rochester, silk screen decals on T-shirts are among the clothing features that he cannot tolerate. His mom is Lisa M. Latten, health project coordinator of the Southern Tier Initiative at University of Rochester Medical Center Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Latten has noticed that as Ian has grown older, it’s been more challenging to find comfortable fabrics and fits for him. A ninth-grader this year, Ian likes shirts with no tags or embellishments and socks without seams inside.
“He has to look at everything and make sure there’s no tag,” Latten said. “If the tag is on the side, he wants the tag cut off. He feels it and knows to look for it.”
Many mainstream manufacturers have opted for printed tags instead of physical tags, which has made finding shirts a little easier. Finding pants Ian likes is more difficult. Latten feels thankful for the current athletic wear/leisure wear trend that favors slip-on pants in soft fabrics, since Ian cannot wear jeans, corduroy or khaki fabrics or pants that zip and button.
She said that some parents of children on the autism spectrum relate that their children experience similar issues. Some have limited fine motor skills, so clothing with hidden Velcro fasteners and shoes that slip on and off make dressing easier.
While children with sensory issues usually let their parents know what irritates them, the problem lies in finding clothing that accommodates their children’s needs, looks like their friends’ clothing, and fits within the family budget.
“Having other parents within the autism community to ask about what worked for their child is really important,” Latten said. “Parents who have done this before you know all the tricks.”
While specialty stores and websites sell sensory sensitive clothing, the colors and styles are usually very limited and not stylish. Older children may not want to wear something different from their friends.
Since “feeling is believing” for many children like Ian, shopping at retailers in-person may spare a family a huge pile of returns to ship back. Clothing from specialty stores also tend to cost more than clothing from mainstream stores in many cases.
“It’s about finding what works,” Latten said.
She noted that a few stores are beginning to stock sensory clothing as they become more aware and accepting of children’s needs and realize that sensory clothing isn’t a trend but a previously unfilled need for some families.
Trying out new clothing and accessories at home can help families learn what will work before having the children wear them to school for the first time.
Leah Phaneuf, part of the clinical programs at The Kelberman Center located in Syracuse, advises parents to use this strategy.
“If your child has never carried a backpack or is not comfortable with wearing school clothes, it would be a good idea to begin practicing these skills before the first day of school,” Phaneeuf said. “You can practice carrying a backpack and/or tolerating new clothing in small increments of times, rewarding progressive successes.”
Where to Find Sensory Clothing
So where can parents find sensory friendly clothing in mainstream stores?
• Target offers numerous sensory friendly selections among their Cat & Jack line.
• Kohl’s Jumping Beans, SO and Urban Pipeline clothing also provide sensory conscious features.
• Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive line includes clothing with features such as magnetic closures for people with fine motor difficulties, pre-washed softness and printed tags.
• Many shirts at Old Navy and Under Armor feature printed tags, no silk screens or appliqués and soft fabrics. The latter also carries compression clothing. Though intended for athletes, these tight garments in moisture-wicking fabrics appeal to those who feel soothed by snug clothing.
• Zappos sells many lines of clothing and shoes that meet a variety of needs, such as clothing that can be worn inside out or backwards (Independence Day, 4Ward), zipper-opening shoes (Billy Footwear, Nike), and easy-closure garments (MagnaReady).
Stores that specifically target sensory needs include:
• www.kozieclothes.com (sensory clothing, including compression)
• www.funandfunction.com (sensory clothing, including compression)
• www.worldssoftest.com (soft socks)
• www.nonetz.com (swim trunks with no net liner)