“If we’re wearing clothing that provokes unwanted sensory responses, this will load up our cognitive and emotional resources, placing limits on what we’re able to achieve. It may lead to poor decisions being made, undesirable behaviours and opportunities missed,” Johnson says.
Put simply, Bowen says the feeling of particular fabrics “drive her crazy”.
“I will hyper-focus on it,” she says. “If my waistband is too tight or if I forget to tear a tag off a new piece of clothing, my hyper-focus on the discomfort means I can’t focus on anything else. It can have serious, widespread impacts on my ability to function.”
However, sensory-friendly clothes can have the opposite effect, eliminating any distracting sensations and allowing her to decompress and feel safe. This is why she “practically lives in activewear”, which has high and wide waistbands that dissipate pressure.
The ideal type of sensory-friendly clothing will differ depending on the neurodivergent individual, says Julie Baker, owner of Sensory-Friendly Clothing who was diagnosed with autism and ADHD in 2020. Examples include soft and stretchy fabric, flatlocked seams to minimise irritation, pockets sewn to the outside of a garment to minimise seams rubbing against the skin, care labels printed onto the fabric and soft-lined waistbands.
It goes beyond the clothing’s feel, Baker adds, incorporating elements that help with sensory regulation. This can include oversized hoods that can be partially pulled over the face to minimise bright lights or loud noises, drawstrings with metal ends to fidget with, kangaroo pockets that allow wearers to internally clasp their hands together, looped satin ribbons or non-functional buttons inside pockets to fiddle with and thumbholes in long sleeves that wearers can pull tightly around their hands when feeling overwhelmed.
Major retailers like Target, Uniqlo and Under Armour currently offer sensory-friendly basics, such as socks, underwear and seamless tees. However, lines dedicated entirely to sensory-friendly clothing remain rare, particularly those that offer fashion-forward options or statement pieces.
“I’d love to see major clothing retailers adapt more sensory-friendly designs as a standard to create opportunities for those who find it difficult to deal with sensory overload and anxiety,” Baker says. “It would be even more amazing to have a more diverse range of options for those with sensory needs to be able to choose from to express themselves, just like everyone else.”
Kelly Goodfellow, founder of Comfort on the Spectrum whose son has a rare genetic disorder and a diagnosis of autism, agrees, noting that the fashion industry at large is not entirely accessible for those with sensory-processing issues.
“The fashion industry is so focused on the image or look of a garment. The functionality or feel come second to that,” Goodfellow says.
Sensory-friendly lines from high-profile neurodivergent people, such as Heartbreak High’s Chloé Hayden, help raise awareness within the industry, as do designers like Jasmine Schulte, who has dedicated themselves to proving sensory-friendly clothing belongs on the runway.
Though Goodfellow welcomes these strides, she says sensory-friendly clothing will probably remain a niche market – but for good reason.
“To do it well, it requires a personal touch from those who really understand it. The huge quantities that large retail stores require lack the small touches that make the garment truly sensory-friendly.”
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