Why is it so hard to get dressed? is just one of the many questions I ask my brain every single morning of my life. Now that I know that I am autistic, (and have taken time to try to understand what autism means,) I have finally been able to identify and problem-solve some of my lifelong issues with clothing, and ease the shame that exists alongside this.
This is great progress – although it doesn’t make the issues disappear.
The non-autistic brain allows people to filter out the sensory feeling of clothing on their bodies, whereas the feeling of clothes on my skin is something I am conscious of every second of the day.
Clothes never sit naturally and comfortably on my body.
Tags, seams, and restrictive clothes cause physical pain to autistic people like me because our brains our hardwired to receive the sensory information differently. But rather than wear the same trusty tank top and leggings each day, many of us will fiercely mask and deny our needs in order to fit-in with what other people are wearing in different social circumstances; this is what we have trained ourselves to do our entire lives but it can come at a cost.
If the fabric is ‘wrong,’ it is like having needles sticking into your arm all day. Or like having an intense itch wriggling through your body that you are forbidden to scratch. Taking off the clothes would solve it, but I’ve learned now that that would be socially unacceptable: you’ve got to just endure it.
These intolerances are distracting. They stop us from being able to think clearly, process what others say to us, communicate in the moment, know what to do and when. They contribute to meltdowns, delayed meltdowns, and deep shame – especially if we are unable to identify the specific trigger of the overload and manage it quickly.
Autism is a communication disorder, which can mean millions of different things. In this case it means that, not only do I experience touch and pain differently to the non-autistic community, my brain will fail to communicate to my body where the pain actually is. When the seam of my tights is digging into the tips of my toes I know that I am distracted and hurting, but I cannot identify the cause in order to manage it.
Clothes can be difficult to cope with because of sensory processing differences in autism, but they can also be hard to manage due to executive dysfunction. Executive functioning, in this instance, refers to the ability to manage and prepare clothes according to the weather, the temperature, the occasion. It refers to the ability to go shopping, find clothes that match, find clothes that fit properly, put clothes on in the right order, and keep them neat throughout the day.
Many non-autistic people can ‘just do’ these things but my brain doesn’t allow me to, especially during periods of burnout. When I do manage this, which takes a lot of brain energy, you can guarantee my clothes combinations will either be socially unacceptable or a massive challenge for my senses.
I must wash and prepare all of my clothes for the week on a Sunday, and hang them up in the order that they will be worn, because making decisions about clothes right before I need to wear them causes a great amount of anxiety. Anxiety that was not present at all during the months of lockdown when I was working from home in a comfortable top and pyjama bottoms. I need to know, in advance, what I am going to be wearing each day for work, and I need to check it several time before I am able to fall asleep at night. It is quite exhausting, but if this doesn’t happen, there is a high possibility that I will not be able to function enough to leave the house at all.
The anxiety is partly there because of self-awareness and the tendency to study and analyse everyone else – comparing myself to other people and the clothes they are wearing. When I notice that people can wear lots of different kinds of clothes, match different shoes to different outfits, or wear a different pair of shoes to work every day, I feel in awe of them. I can only manage one pair of shoes and I wear that same pair with everything. Some people never seem to wear the same outfits twice, and others know how to combine their clothes differently for variety. Teachers don’t have to wear a uniform which would make life easier in a way.
Not everyone values clothes the same way, but when you want to be able to be creative with clothes, it can bring up a lot of thoughts that are harsh on your self-confidence: why can’t I manage and wear lots of different types of clothes? Why can’t I adapt my clothes spontaneously according to the weather? Why do my clothes hurt my skin? Why don’t I look like …them?
I spoke to a group of autistic females from the online autistic community about their experiences with clothes to find out whether they have similar issues to me, and I received over 100 responses. Here are some of them:
When it is windy I always wear a hat or a hood. I cannot stand to feel the wind blowing through my hair – that’s way too much sensory input for me. Some days I am more tolerant than others depending on the rest of my sensory input. On the worst days, the weight of my clothes can send me into sensory overload.
The change in season from summer to autumn is the hardest for me because I can’t wear long sleeves, high collars, or socks. I can only wear a certain brand of tank tops and leggings. The thought of sock fabric against the carpet is unbearable to me, but I have recently found out that I am okay with ultra-soft, smooth slipper socks.
If I get very stressed I suddenly feel my clothes all over me, and it feels suffocating. None of my clothes have tags and if they did I would cut them all out. I do hate bras and underwear. I have a very small collection of clothes that I wear inside the house, but I pretty much suffer the entire time if I am away from the house or at work.
Clothes management is exhausting. I am always accidentally wearing clothes that aren’t appropriate for the weather; it could be 102 degrees outside, and I’ll be there in joggers and a hoodie. You can guarantee that when you find something you can bear to wear it won’t be fashionable or socially accepted.
I have specific clothes for various things. Today is a pyjama day, but whenever I go shopping I wear loose jeans and my Jurassic Park t-shirt.
I wear black yoga leggings and a tank top every single day. In the winter I just put a hoodie over my tank top. If I had to go to work it would be a nightmare because these are the only items I can wear due to my sensory processing disorder.
I struggle with clothes because I don’t regulate temperature well. I just wear very high-waisted leggings – so they are hug-like – and loose, grandpa cardigans.
Clothes bother me in so many ways, the texture, the weight, tags, bold patterns, seams etc. I am constantly conscious of it all and it is draining. Texture and fit is far more important to me than style and colour. Shoes are the worst challenge.
I have really bad clothing intolerance. When I find something comfortable and soft I buy it five times. My clothes have to be too big or I feel them getting tighter and tighter throughout the day as my tolerance depletes, like my body is being squeezed.