Sensory Clothing Meets Kids’ Needs

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, but others may have sensory issues.

“Individuals on the spectrum have sensory systems that are different,” said Tracy A. Panzarella, director of clinical services at Autism Services, Inc. in Amherst. “If you have a tag that bothers you, you can remove it. Or if the fabric isn’t soft, you get through the day. For someone with sensory issues, they take the shirt off. Some individuals with limited communication skills can’t communicate their needs to you.”

It’s not a simple preference for soft clothing, which neuro-typical people experience. It’s a necessity to feel comfortable and relaxed.

Kristi P. Smith, licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Williamsville, said that what would feel like a pinch to anyone else feels like a bee sting to someone with sensory issues.

“It’s painful to have a scratchy tag,” Smith said. “For kids with sensory issues, a tag is a big deal to them.”

Children with sensory disorders may have different clothing needs and aversions.

Many mainstream manufacturers have opted for printed tags instead of physical tags, which has made finding shirts a little easier.

Finding pants is more difficult for children that don’t tolerate stiff fabrics like denim, corduroy or khaki. The current athletic wear/leisure wear trend that favors slip-on pants in soft fabrics helps children that need soft material as well as those who need pants without zippers or buttons.

“Athletic compression shirts for kids on the spectrum give them additional sensory input,” Panzarella said. “The fabric is tighter, but breathable. That can meet a sensory need as well. The pressure can be calming and soothing for them.”

Since the shirts are made to fit snugly, parents don’t have to go with shirts long since outgrown to achieve the tight fit their children want.

Some children 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.

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.

“As much as they may be different — and  schools do a lot of inclusion — they want to be like the other kids,” Smith said.

Since “feeling is believing” for many children on the autism specturm, 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.

Panzarella noted that a few mainstream stores are beginning to stock sensory clothing as they become more aware and accepting of children’s needs “They can shop with their brothers and sisters to feel more like a typical kid,” Panzarella said.

Where to Find Sensory-Friendly Clothing

So where can parents find sensory friendly clothing in mainstream stores?

• Target offers numerous sensory friendly selections among their Cat & Jack line and even Halloween costumes.

• 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.

• 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:

• (sensory clothing, including compression)

• (sensory clothing, including compression)

• (soft socks)

• (swim trunks with no net liner)