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Dress and Autism

With Autism Spectrum disorder, normal parts of any NT’s (neuro-typical’s) day can be tricky. Getting dressed is no exception. I don’t mean the simple act of putting on clothes, but the complexities into looking like the rest of society. Normal everyday dress can be tricky.

As a child, only a few components were required when it came to getting ready for the day. There were four simple choices. My outfits as a young child were color coordinated. Mom would ask whether I wanted to be a cardinal (red outfit), canary (yellow outfit), blue jay (blue outfit) or green bean (green outfit.) Being a green bean was the most popular choice, as my favorite color is green, and always has been since at least when I knew what colors were (and likely before).

Eventually there were other aspects to consider about getting dressed. I discovered that not all fabrics were created equal. Nice, soft materials such as that of sweat pants felt good, where stiffer materials like denim did not. Of course, denim is the fabric of jeans, a common type of pants worn in public. Besides being made of a rough feeling, heavy material, jeans also contained uncomfortable pieces of metal known as rivets. This issue is a common sensory issue for people with autism.

“Dress clothes” (such as what I wear to church) are another kind of pants that I wore. Though still not comfortable, they felt much better to me than jeans. They were also easier to fasten. In my younger years, my motor skills were exceptionally bad. I had trouble snapping snaps, which is a necessary skill needed for many jeans. My difficulty with snaps was pointed out to my parents by a teacher. She was concerned about my developmental skills and muscle tone being behind. She thought I should be able to snap snaps by that age. Being first time parents, my mom and dad weren’t aware, especially since I was far ahead in other areas.

When it came to what clothes to wear, I have figured this out over time. For example, I would never consider wearing sweatpants to church. It doesn’t seem appropriate. On the other hand, I would and still do wear the same green shirt consistently to church. Yes, I know they are simply button-down shirts, but T-shirts are more comfortable, and what I want to wear when they are an appropriate choice. After I’m done with church, I change into comfortable clothing and hang the pants and shirt up for the next week, unless it needs to be laundered.

When I do wear a different shirt to church, guess what? It's green too. People might find it quirky, but it’s okay. Most of my shirts are green. Typically, the only shirts I have that aren’t green are those that I get because of the picture on them. For an example, I have had several Trisha Yearwood shirts that I have worn over time. As of the present, they haven’t been offered in green. I doubt they will, as she doesn’t seem to be releasing much new music these days. It’s funny, I wear enough green clothing, that sometimes my mom will do a load of “greens” in the laundry.

There are plenty of other issues with getting dressed. Think socks are easy? Think again. There are two main types of socks: tube socks and crew socks. When I was younger, I had a number of pairs of tube socks. These simply slid onto my feet. They fit into place. As a child, it was common for me to wear white tube socks with green stripes. At one point in time, I had several sets of tube socks that were in the three primary colors, plus green. I liked these socks as they were easy to put on, and were soft.

Crew socks, the other type is a different story. Though I have worn them for a long time as well (and the only kind I have worn for quite a while), they don’t go on easy. The trouble is that they have to be put on properly. A person’s foot has a heel and an ankle. With crew socks the heel of the sock needs to sit under the person’s heel. I have trouble knowing where on my foot my heel and ankle are. There is a spot where I typically think they both are. Mom has tried to teach me many times, but for some reason, I can’t seem to remember. So many times, the sock’s heel would end up being a bulge on the top of my foot, instead of conforming to the shape of my foot. Sometimes the top of my socks would be turned up. Sometimes the seam at the toe would be turned wrong.

I have trouble knowing where numerous other body parts are. It’s not that I haven’t been taught, for whatever the reason, I can’t retain where they are located. Is it due to autism…or a learning disability?

Shoes are another unique challenge. For many years I would put them on wrong by wearing them on the wrong feet. I never noticed! What style of shoes was also a challenge. Similar to most people, I was taught to tie my shoes. I learned how, but there was a catch. I couldn’t get them to stay tied. They’d get loose. Double knots were tried, but still didn’t work. The times that they did, they caused a different problem. It’s hard to take knots out of shoe strings, especially when one has “fumble fingers.” In reality it’s hard to take knots out of anything. If this wasn’t so, I could actually take the knots out of deflated balloons so that they could be blown back up again. Shoes with laces weren’t school friendly either, since in eighth and ninth grades some students seemed to step on them on purpose. Naturally these shoes could also be a tripping hazard. People often would tell me that my shoe laces were loose so I could fix them— endlessly!

Another interesting story is about dress shoes. For a long time, I thought that dress shoes were supposed to be uncomfortable. Why? I had a pair, that looked nice. There wasn’t anything wrong with them. Or wait, actually there was, and I didn’t know it at the time. They became too small. It is simply that we didn’t know it. Once coming to that conclusion (with help of course), I got a new pair, which haven’t ever been a problem. Dress shoes can be comfortable.

Velcro shoes have been common for me to wear during two periods of time. Originally when I was a kid, I often got these kinds of shoes because of the ease of fastening them. Eventually as an adult, I found a brand of shoe, that was comfortable, and had Velcro. I’ve been wearing this kind ever since. Anytime I need to get my shoes replaced, I get the same exact kind. I don’t even need to be in the store when they are bought. I just got a new pair for Christmas my parents picked up while shopping in Lancaster. Hey, if it isn’t broken, why break it so it has to be fixed?

Two problems exist with my pants. Firstly, my waist band tends to get twisted and my pants can be crooked. A second common issue is that the legs of my pants get stuck in my socks. I simply don’t notice the issues. I have been better with the waist bands of late. Some good news, is that now I only wear pants made of comfortable materials. These pants are basically glorified sweatpants. I do wear nice looking pants to places such as church. I might not notice how I look, but I have picked up on a few things over time. The problem with my pants legs is still on going. Sometimes Mom will take a quick photo of my legs so I can see what is wrong, and can fix it.

Shirts can also provide a set of problems. I don’t like wearing shirts with tight necks. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe. When putting such shirts on; it feels that the shirt will get stuck.

I often get shirts as souvenirs when I go on vacation. It’s something that’s useful, but also shows the places where I have been. The shirts I get are always short sleeved (long sleeved doesn’t feel good). The only kind of shirt I would buy are T-shirts. Occasionally, I will get a shirt that I can’t wear. The problem isn’t that it doesn’t fit, it’s that the neck is too tight for my liking. When it comes to pulling shirts on and off, I do it rather quickly since I’m afraid they will get stuck when pulling them over my head. As an asthmatic, I am fearful of this causing a breathing problem.

Deodorant is a good thing to wear and no secret, but nobody wants to advertise that they wear it, by having it stain their shirts. Before switching to spray, I would often get white streaks on my shirts from the substance. Though I might not notice the marks, my parents did. If they did, then of course general society would! No matter how careful I was putting on the shirt, I seemed to have the problem, which is why I switched to spray.

People take for granted that humans typically learn many things by observation. Sometimes it seems to me like these things are actually learned by osmosis, since I certainly can’t figure them out. The example with clothes happens to be checking one’s appearance in the mirror. I was told to look in the mirror to make sure my clothes were all fixed right, and I would. One problem. I would look at my face. I had not figured out that when I went to the mirror, I was supposed to look at myself as a whole to see if anything needed fixing, not just my face!

Instead of looking at my face, maybe I should have looked at my collar. I still have a problem with my collar standing up. It is constantly pointed out to me that my collar needs to be adjusted— even now at age forty.

Unfortunately, some occasions call for dressing up. Why some people enjoy it, I don’t know, but I certainly don’t. Besides button down shirts and dress pants, for guys there are neck ties. I really don’t like wearing them. They are uncomfortable at the neck, and I can’t stand to have the top button on shirts buttoned either. I have had a few neat ties over time that have eased the pain to a degree when I wear them.

Winter weather can also pose a challenge. I don’t like having heavy, bulky fabric on me. This means that winter coats don’t work so well. Wearing one in the car is intolerable. If for some reason I needed to wear one someplace away from home, I would wear it when outside, but take it off in the car. I have worn them when shoveling snow though. The long exposure to cold weather is worse than the feeling of the coat. What I often will do during the winter is wear a medium coat (the kind people often wear during the fall). Usually this suffices.

Dressing problems do not just involve clothing either. Similar to most adults, I brush my hair once a day. This tends to be in the morning. The issue is that sometimes people’s hair can get messed up for various reasons including a common one for me, lying down to take a nap. What I don’t seem to think about is brushing it another time meaning that later in the day, it would appear that I simply didn’t brush it at all, though that wouldn’t be true. I just fail to monitor it as the day goes on.

Though I was only identified as being on the autism spectrum at age twenty-seven, I’ve had it all my life. When life was simpler, autism related problems with my clothing were easier. After life getting more difficult starting in eighth grade and throughout college, I became worn out in terms of putting up with issues with fabrics. This is why I eventually switched to the glorified sweatpants. Sometimes you got to do what you got to do. In my opinion anyway, life with autism gets harder over time, not easier, and I must continue to find some way to cope. Some adaptations are easier than others.

As of current times, I definitely still have issues with getting dressed. I certainly have improved over time, though I still tend not to notice issues with my clothing.

One final thing, it may seem that all these issues make life difficult. Sometimes it can be because of fashion related items, like having to wear a tie at certain events. The reality is that fashion doesn’t seem to be something I care much about. I don’t notice the problems unless they are pointed out to me. What matters to me is that I like what I’m wearing, and that it’s comfortable. So, what if I wear green seven days a week? So, what if the shades tend to be similar? Why should society care? I don’t. If I’m not worrying about what others are wearing, why should they care about what I wear?

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