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Fall 2015

professors professors with clothing designed for children with autism spectrum disorder

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by Heidi Toth

Sensory Style

Design Professors Create Sensory Clothing for Children with Autism

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), life may seem easier in a bubble – no sudden temperature changes, no irritating noises, no one else touching them.

Two Texas Tech University design professors, while not creating an autism bubble, have designed a line of sensory clothing for children with ASD that controls some of those factors in their environment. They hope it will make life a little easier for these children and their families.

Su Shin, associate professor in apparel design and manufacturing, is leading the project, called “Sensory clothing design for children with ASD,” which the College of Human Sciences funded. She researches clothing design and manufacturing in the industry aspect, including fit and sizing issues in mass production. Her expertise in children's clothing design brings about the needs of clothing design for children with ASD.    

She partnered with Kristi Gaines, an interior design professor who used her experience with creating environments, including environments designed for people with ASD. While many do not think of clothing as part of the environment, she called it “near environment” rather than “built environment.” Together, they came up with ways to design, create and test different clothes.

sample of kinds of shirts

Therapeutic clothing exists, but looks utilitarian. Gaines and Shin's designs accommodate sensory issues while looking like typical clothing.
Image Credit: Ashley Rodgers. Click to enlarge.

“Although limited therapeutic clothing exists, it looks like therapy clothing,” Gaines said. “The goal of this project was to create clothing designed to accommodate more sensory issues while looking like typical clothing.”

With this in mind the two professors and their undergraduate research assistants, Rachel Ruhman and Taylor Dawson, spent the last year testing designs, fabrics and features in different items of clothing to meet the needs of their target audience.

“We thought my knowledge in children’s wear and her knowledge in autism related to environment design might help to find a solution for children with ASD,” Shin said.

The results look like standard articles of clothing; hoodies, skirts, pants and T-shirts make up the wardrobe. However, each has innovative features to appeal to people with ASD. A vest comes equipped with an air pump to control pressure, while another has “fidgets,” or textured tabs in the pockets to help a person with ASD calm himself. One of the hoodies has sound-proofing around the ears so the wearer can block out environmental noise.

They also received feedback about what worked and what didn’t. Wool, for example, didn’t. Shin said children with ASD tend to be sensitive to high temperatures and thus start sweating, which causes the wool to get and stay wet. Organic bamboo fabric was the most popular option because it absorbs moisture in the air, which provides a cooling effect.

Both professors said the area still needs research, but they’re pleased they found some things that worked and some things to mark off the list. They will do a second survey of the clothing design, and based on the feedback from students and parents, they’ll continue developing sensory clothes.

They also are looking for other grants to continue funding this research and students who are interested both in design and autism spectrum disorder research.

red hat with whit star of different material samples of shirts and pants sample of shirts and pants 2 close up of pocket with fidget tabs dress on mannequin inside of dress on mannequin close up of jacket with air pump in the pocket full shot of jacket with air pump in jacket

This standard-looking line hides features that might appeal to those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Heidi Toth is a Senior Editor for the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.