Looking the Part: Why I Dress My Autistic Kids for Success

Marj Hatzell

little boy in suitI have a degree in special education and worked with children with a variety of special needs (including autism) for many years before staying home to have my own children. Some might say that it was karma since my boys are both autistic (and, it turns out it runs in the family since my sisters all have kids on the spectrum).

Most of the children I worked with were mainstreamed into regular education programs. Inclusion was becoming very popular then. But, if children are mainstreamed or included with other children their age, they need to blend in, right? Not stick out so much like a sore thumb? Because the more they are like their peers, the more easily they might be accepted. At least, that's the philosophy that works for us.

When I was still working, I always felt sorry for one little boy I worked with. His family was quite well off, but he came to school every day in horribly faded, torn, stained clothing. His mother always laughed and said she'd never buy him something new because he would just ruin it.

While some might agree it's kind of a waste of money to buy new or trendy clothing for a kid with special needs, I think it's abso-smurfly necessary (for the record, I do scour consignment and thrift stores for good stuff). Why? Because they already have the odds stacked against them. They already get looks and stares and comments. If they come to school dressed in ill-fitting, unattractive, outdated clothing, other kids will stare. Or point it out. Or worse, make fun of them. If they are dressed more like their peers they might get treated more like their peers.

Now, I know people will disagree with me on this one. They'll say I'm shallow and that keeping up appearances isn't necessary. In a perfect world, that's how it would be. That's fine if you feel that way. But me? I'm not dressing my children in rags. I'm not sending them to school in faded or torn clothing. I refuse to let them wear something stained. Why?

Because people expect them to look that way.

I've heard over and over again that it's "okay" because "he's autistic!" or it's "okay" if he wipes his hands on his shirt because "he's disabled!" But it's not okay to me. I expect that our sons will behave in public. I expect that they will learn to use a napkin and fork when they eat. Just because they have special needs it doesn't mean they get a free ticket to misbehave, have bad manners or do the flounder routine on the floor of Target. We do not excuse that type of behavior. We expect our sons to behave like their peers. We expect them to look like their peers. We've found that people treat them more like normal, average, everyday kids when we treat them the same way.

They are already going to have a tough time blending in and being like their same-aged peers. Dressing like their peers or purchasing age-appropriate Christmas and birthday gifts is important to us because it helps them fit in. It makes them more acceptable to the general public. And while we teach our children never to judge a book by its cover and never judge on appearances, the truth is that our society does just that. For some reason they tend hold disabled/special people to a higher standard. I just want my kids to start out with equal footing.

I also feel this is important because some day they will need to function as adults. They'll need to dress themselves and they'll need to have activities and interests. Nothing makes me more sad than seeing a 30-year-old disabled adult walking around with a Woody doll or watching Thomas the Tank Engine. People EXPECT them to be weird or different. They don't expect them to amount to much and they get pity and sadness thrown their way. I want different for my boys.

I want them to be treated like everyone else in the world. Even if it is just for five minutes.

How do you feel about this issue when it comes to your child with special needs?


Image via Deyan Georgiev/shutterstock

Read More