Three ways your relationship with clothing could be pointing to autism

From a cosy jumper you bring to your lounge to a double-breasted suit you wear to a job interview, clothes can serve as the language between your mood and appearance. There’s nothing unusual about preferring certain items over others, whether that’s caused by their sentimental value or the materials they are made out of. However, certain behaviours linked to clothing could be pointing to autism, according to an expert.

New research from Vanish, who partnered up with the charity, Ambitious about Autism, has found that one in three girls realise they are autistic because of an attachment to an item of clothing.

As a part of Vanish’s new campaign Me, My Autism & I, TV personality, model and author, Christine McGuinness, who was diagnosed with autism in 2021 aged 33, revealed how her grey hoodie offers support.

McGuinness said: “Every autistic person is unique but for many of us, change is a big deal and clothing can make or break the day-to-day for some autistic people when we rely on it for consistency and familiarity.

“I have a grey hoodie which is particularly important to me because of the way the sleeves pull over my hands to comfort me, and because it has a deep hood which is perfect to hide into when it gets too noisy while travelling.”

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Dr Laura Hull, an autism expert from the University of Bristol, told that certain behaviours surrounding clothing could be signs of autism.

1.Attachment to clothing

Similarly to McGuinness, some autistic people might turn to certain pieces of clothing for support and comfort.

“Some autistic people have a strong preference for familiarity and routine, and so might want to wear the same items of clothing every day,” Dr Hull said.

2.Struggle with new clothing

From formal clothes worn on special occasions to non-uniform days at school, wearing unfamiliar clothes could result in struggles or negative feelings for some autistic people.

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Dr Hull said: “Wearing familiar clothing can really affect the mood of autistic people and that’s why Vanish’s campaign, Me, My Autism and I has really helped to share awareness on just how important clothes are to some people.

“Clothes aren’t just an item, they’re a lifeline for many people’s everyday lives, helping them feel comfortable and safe.”

3.Sensitivity to certain materials and fit

The last clothing-related sign that could point to autism is sensitivity to certain materials or fit of the clothes.

“If children or adults are extremely sensitive to certain items of clothing, or find them uncomfortable (for instance, pulling off socks or clothes, or preferring soft and seamless materials like fleece and jersey), this could be a sign that they have some of the sensory sensitivities associated with autism,” Dr Hull said.

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The new research found that 92 percent of autistic people are affected by sensory sensitivity and 73 percent of autistic people use clothes to help regulate their senses.

While the findings suggest that one in three girls realise they are autistic because of an attachment to an item of clothing, Dr Hull explained that this sign isn’t gender-specific.

The expert said: “As far as I am aware, sensory sensitivities related to clothing are the same across all sexes/genders.

“This research focused on participants in the survey who identified as women and non-binary but there have been no specific comparisons between men and women.”

However, the new research also revealed a staggering gender gap in autism diagnoses.

On average, girls are three times less likely than boys to receive an autism diagnosis and it also takes longer for a girl to get diagnosed.

Dr Hull said: “Girls and boys are exposed to different messages and expectations around how they interact with others, and how they are expected to behave, which can then impact how they express their autism.

“However, more research is needed to understand exactly how autism is expressed across the lifespan amongst all genders.”

The expert advised talking to healthcare or education professionals, such as your GP or a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) in a school, if you think that you or someone you know might be autistic.

As part of the campaign, you can visit a new free exhibition at [email protected] from Wednesday 29 March to Sunday 2 April (11am – 6pm), showcasing the intimate and powerful stories of 12 young autistic girls and non-binary people and their must-have clothes that help make their world feel a little more comfortable.

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