Clothing and tactile defensiveness
Updated: Feb 25
I got up this morning in a good mood. I jumped in the shower, decided to wear something I don’t normally choose from my closet, popped on my clothes and swung into Mama mode for the morning.
It didn’t take long for me to become aware that I had very quickly become irritable. I wasn’t sure why and went through all the usual irritability causes..
Did I eat something my body doesn’t tolerate well? Where am I at in my cycle? Did I get enough sleep? Am I becoming unwell?
So on I went, doing all the things one does in the morning.
As the morning progressed, I felt more and more irritable and started feeling physical irritability in my body. I kicked my slippers off and tied my hair back out of my face and then I realised..
It was my pants.
A pair of pants I love to look at, but apparently my body doesn’t love to wear.
I focused on how they made me feel.
When I put my hands on my hips, my sides felt different and weird. The high waist felt grossly uncomfortable and I felt trapped.
So off I went to get changed and the moment I changed into something I would normally choose..
Ahhhh. The relief.
Like a balm over my whole being.
Yep. Sensory sensitivity or in this case, specifically tactile defensiveness is like that.
A person on the spectrum or someone with sensory processing disorder can be experiencing it and not even realise.
Particularly young people.
There are so many points of sensitivity and intolerance for the autistic person that it is extremely difficult for our brains to process it all, all of the time, and children in particular can very quickly become lost in the sensory input and BAM!..
Overwhelmed and melting down or shutting down.
I remember as a child how much I hated particular items of clothing.
Oh man..I was a child victim of 80s fashion, born in 79 (just missed the more relaxed fabrics of the 70s) so my Mum had me wearing a lot of denim and desert boots and THONGS (if you’re in the US, thongs are flip flops here, not underwear).
I hated the tightness of denim, oh GOD the acid wash denim was the worst. So hard, so tight.
Desert boots, so hard, so cardboard.
And don’t even get me started on the thongs. The feeling of a firm rubber strip in between my toes.
At home, I mostly prefered to get around in my underwear or a pair of swimmers.
Had I been born later, my autism may have been obvious but not back then.
So many times, so many days in my life I could not cope with clothing being wrong.
Leaving school or university during the day to go home, or not making it to events or outings or just out of the house at all because I had changed clothes one hundred times and still didn’t feel right.
My own girls were much the same as many of us on the autism spectrum..
Closets full of clothes we love to look at and tell ourselves we’ll wear one day as each year passes.
But really we have one or two outfits we love, feel most comfortable in and wear on a loop..
Many of us preferring trackies, t shirts and hoodies.
I would spend a lot of money as their Mum on clothing that I would choose because I thought they’d like how they LOOKED.
They’d be excited and be thankful, pop the clothes away and never wear them.
Much to my frustration.
So then they would choose their own clothes when they were older..
Surely that would work?
Because they didn’t know that it was their autistic bodies rejecting the physical feeling of the clothing.
And sometimes our bodies will send swift messages to our brains that will create blocks that we aren’t consciously aware of in order to protect us.
Like not even allowing us to try something on because our bodies are WISE and know what we need.
And we still CONSCIOUSLY, COGNITIVELY don’t know what’s going on.
Many of us, whether we’re diagnosed or not, take years and years to actually work out where our sensitivities lie and how to understand and work with our brains and bodies to take care of our needs.
This means we can live in an absolute hell of people demanding answers about things we can’t do, people being frustrated with us, and we don’t even know why ourselves.
Soft fabrics, seemless, tagless, loose..whatever it takes it what we need to do.
Last year we had our family portraits taken and our beautiful photos reflected the diversity within our family.
Some of us wearing bright colours and leather pants (me), others wearing bright red overalls, one of us wearing a flannelette shirt and loose jeans.
Because family photos should reflect who we ARE, not who we want to PRETEND we are.
Because it isn’t just about appearance or physical discomfort..
Wearing the wrong clothing, tactile defensiveness, sensory sensitivity affects our cognition and mental health.
And hey, as always..
Acceptance is key.
Image: I love apparel.
Kristy Forbes Autism & Neurodiversity Support Specialist inTune Pathways