Michele Iallonardi’s son Jackson, 12, has autism, and while he can physically put on his clothes, he can’t differentiate between right and wrong sides or front and back. “You must actually hand him the clothes the right way and ‘coach’ while he puts them on,” says Iallonardi, of Hauppauge, N.Y., who is also the mother of 10-year-old twins Bennett and Luca. “This should be a skill that he can do independently,” she says, but Jackson can’t because regular clothes have zippers, buttons, seams and tags — often insurmountable obstacles to getting dressed for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Lauren Thierry, a mother of three boys, is very familiar with these limitations. Her oldest, 16-year-old Liam, has autism, and it was around the time he turned 7 that she envisioned an easier morning routine. “A scratchy shirt tag, a twisted sock seam, an ordinary wristwatch — that stuff can send someone with autism into tantrums, can make them tear off a shirt while on a school bus or kick off a shoe in a shopping mall,” says Thierry, who lives in New York City.
But thanks to the recent launch of Independence Day Wearable Technology, Jackson, Liam and their families are dressing more easily every day.
Thierry — a former journalist who left her job to care for Liam full-time — used her background to research clothing options for young adults with autism. She produced the documentary “Autism Every Day,” and spearheaded Autism Awareness Day at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. In fact, it was at a Mets game when Liam, then 12 at the time, came out of the bathroom with his pants halfway down that Thierry knew something had to change, because he “still did not have the fine motor skills to zip and button his fly.” Thierry’s advocacy work revealed that many other families with children on the ASD spectrum experience the same issues.
Thierry met with New York City-based designer Dalila Anderson to see if her idea for a line of sensory-sensitive, stylish clothing was feasible. “She wanted to know if we could come up with an idea to make clothing reversible, seamless, etc.,” says Anderson. “I said yes, and just started sketching.”
Anderson, who studied at the Parsons School of Design, serves as Independence Day Clothing’s creative/production director, designer and design consultant, while Thierry is the company’s president. The clothing is made in New York City, using natural fabrics and fibers whenever possible. “That’s a big deal, not only to the autism community, but for me as a designer,” says Anderson.
The line features rugby shirts, cargo pants, dresses, tunics, leggings and hoodies that are seamless, tagless, buttonless, zipperless and either two- or four-way reversible. Careful craftsmanship and details address the shape and weight challenges facing tweens and teens (the average wearer is 10 to 16 years old) with ASD who are going through puberty. Necklines and waistlines are equally meted so clothing can be turned inside out or backward and forward with ease. “Children want to be able to hang out with friends, and feel like they are just one of the other kids, not have their clothing unzipped, unbuttoned, or backwards, in a way that other people take for granted,” Anderson says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently estimates that about 1 in 68 children in the United States has been diagnosed with ASD, and according to the National Autism Association, roughly half, or 48 percent, of those children will attempt to wander from a safe environment — a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings. So perhaps ID Clothing’s most compelling innovation is the soft, sensory-sensitive, hidden compartments that house a small GPS device. ID Clothing truly is wearable tech — 11 different devices were beta tested to get the details right. The GPS device “had to be placed in a way where it wouldn’t bother the wearer and it wouldn’t be something someone else could see,” says Anderson. Customers receive a free GPS device with purchase, and through a partnership with Phoenix 5 Global Tracking can set up a plan to utilize the EMPOWER GPS+Hybrid Technology system.
Though ID Clothing is the first to offer GPS-enabled apparel, they join several other brands making strides in the world of sensory-sensitive goods, including Soft Clothing, SmartKnitKids, Kozie Clothes and No Netz.
However, the wearable technology isn’t without its critics, who are concerned about privacy issues. Appearing before the New York City Council in April 2014, Thierry said, “If you were the parent of a child who bolts, you would not be worrying about big brother. These are the things moms like me go through every single day — keeping predators away, keeping him from wandering — we live with this elevated stress level every day.” The testimony was part of an effort by the council to implement a medical registry and access to GPS technology for people with developmental disorders, in the wake of the tragic loss of 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, who wandered from his school in Queens in October 2013 and was found dead several months later.
Lisa Keane Herrera, an applied behavior analysis therapist and special education teacher in New York City, has worked with clients, including Thierry’s son, on the ASD spectrum since 2001 and was present at a focus group for ID Clothing. “You could see that the kids [with autism] were happier overall,” she says. “It’s good for their self-confidence. A task that may have taken thirty minutes may now take five. I know parents that spend hours ripping out tags and seams. This is cutting edge for someone who can’t advocate for themselves,” she says.
For Iallonardi, a special education teacher, ID Clothing is a lifesaver. “My son can go in his drawer, take out a shirt, put it on, and it’s right no matter what,” she says. “He spends his whole life with other people trying to figure out what he wants. The more that he can do for himself, the better his quality of life.”
Anderson and Thierry are enthusiastic about the future of ID Clothing. What’s up next? Producing underwear, T-shirts, sweats and socks, while skirts and cargo shorts are also in the works. Sizes will soon expand to include extra-small and extra-large (only small to large are currently available). Thierry’s ultimate goal: to show at New York Fashion Week. “I see high-end supermodels walking hand-in-hand with the real superstars — those living with autism and other special needs, who are true heroes for getting out of bed every morning and getting dressed all by themselves before they leave for school,” says Thierry. “A splashy debut of a clothing line for this population is every bit as noteworthy as a splashy launch of one by some reality show celebrity. [Kids with autism] are the superstars who deserve to be celebrated.”