Clothing line for autistic kids eliminates inside outs
Lauren Thierry had to set her alarm an hour early to help her son get dressed for school. Still, there were many mornings when the teenager missed the bus.
Buttons, zippers, collars, tags, rights and lefts and fronts and backs were all a challenge and annoyance for Liam, who is autistic. Every day, Thierry would go through the steps of trying to teach Liam, now 17, to dress himself.
She enlisted the help of his therapists, who tried different ways to help Liam master the fundamental skill, but the Bronxville mother and son remained locked in a frustrating morning dance to get Liam out the door on time.
Thierry, a former CNN Financial anchor and documentary filmmaker, found it hard to believe that someone hadn’t found a solution to this most basic challenge. Why couldn’t clothes be made without irritating seams or tags? Or without zippers that pinch and require dexterity to master? Or how about a T-shirt that could be worn frontwards or backwards or inside out?
“There had been too many days where he had been missing the school bus,” Thierry said.
Thierry knew she wasn’t the only parent facing the problem. During the making of her documentary “Autism Every Day,” which was released in 2006, she had spent time in the homes of families with children on the autism spectrum and had witnessed their daily getting-dressed challenges.
So she decided to tackle the problem herself and design clothes for children on the autism spectrum. At the same time, she saw an opportunity to solve one of the other major problems facing autism families: the need to track wandering children who refuse to wear a pendant or bracelet with a GPS device.
She combined both goals and launched a line of clothing called Independence Day.
Creative director Dalila Anderson-Gunn and creatorBuy Photo
Creative director Dalila Anderson-Gunn and creator Lauren Thierry show off their line of GPS enabled clothes called ‘Independence Day.’ (Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)
To get the company started, Thierry, who has no fashion background, partnered with designer Dalila Anderson-Gunn about a year and a half ago. Anderson-Gunn had the practical experience in design and production to make the idea a reality.
“I just really was drawn to it,” Anderson-Gunn said, “because it’s pretty much brilliant. I thought it was a great idea.”
The pair had to work through the challenges of making shirts easy to pull on, that could be worn frontwards or backwards and inside-out, but still look like a traditional crew neck. An even tougher problem was making pants that could be worn frontwards and backwards without looking too tight or loose in the wrong places. With designs like these, getting the right fabric becomes a major piece of the puzzle.
“So much of this was just trial and error because honestly there’s nothing else out there,” Thierry said.
Thierry tried the designs out on Liam and watched as he was able to dress himself in a matter of minutes. Thierry’s other children, 13-year-old twins Luke and Jamie, gave the clothes the teen seal of approval. She would hold up a shirt and ask them if they would ever wear it.
“If they said no then we knew we had to start all over again,” Thierry said.
Another challenge was finding a good hiding place for the GPS tracker to keep the child from pulling it out. Many children and teenagers with autism wander or run off, putting them in serious danger of getting lost, being hit by a car, or drowning, as was the case in December when a 4-year-old Greenburgh boy, Jayden Morrison, wandered while visiting South Carolina with his family and drowned in a pond.
The Independence Day line has been out less than a year and the partners are still adding elements. It’s sold online, with orders filled through a social service agency on Long Island that employs autistic adults. Clothes include T-shirts, dresses, tunics and leggings. Cargo pants are also a hot item.
Under development is what Thierry calls a “cocktail sweat pant,” which is a dressier pant with a front pleat made of sweat pant material.
All the clothes are reversible, so if an item gets stained, you can simply flip it inside-out.
The next step for the clothing line will be to add underwear. And at the suggestion of the owner of a chain of nursing homes, the company is working on a more mature line for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who might have similar challenges dressing and can also be prone to wandering.
“He liked the fact that our GPS is hidden because it can be hidden to the wearer,” Thierry said, referring to the owner of a chain of nursing homes.
As Thierry developed the line and sought out investors, she got a lot of help from friends and neighbors in her hometown of Bronxville.
Some friends created a marketing campaign to broaden the appeal of the clothes and made a video of slacker teenagers too tired to button their shirts correctly or find one without a stain from a pile on the floor. Young models donated their services and stylists helped put together shoots. Professional photographer Jay Ackerman also lent his skills. Ackerman said he has done shoots for the advocacy organization Autism Speaks and run across many kids with autism in his years photographing children and families. Helping Thierry was a way to do his part.
“It all circles back,” Ackerman said.
Thierry rejects the idea suggested by some that her clothes might limit her son and other autistic kids by giving in to the idea that they might not learn the skill of dressing themselves. Her feeling is, she said, “if we can just remove the obstacle entirely, why not.”