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Being a mom to an autistic child can feel like an isolating experience, where there are mounds of struggles that fall into the wide spectrum that is an autism diagnosis. Unfortunately, there are few easy or straightforward ways to address those struggles.
Because autism is an invisible disability, parents of autistic children often feel a lack of support for the struggles their families face. Many report feeling that they and their children experience judgement for behavior and tendencies that can't easily be managed, with no real respect or recognition for the sensory struggles that their autistic children face.
These three moms all felt that way at one point in time. They looked at the problems their children grappled with and when they sought out solutions, they found none. So, they took matters into their own hands. Read on to learn about these inspiring mothers who made real change in the businesses they created, all with a mission of love to help children like theirs.
1. Sheltered Company weighted blankets and mats
Who: Pamela Hunter and daughter Ransom What: Weighted blankets and mats When: 2018 Where: Based out of and made in Los Angeles, CA
Why: When Hunter began therapies to help her daughter, Ransom—like many autistic people—responded to weight therapy when it was administered with compression rollers. Many try to recreate that comforting feeling at home with weighted blankets. Just as an infant feels more cozy and secure when tightly swaddled, weighted blankets give a similar feeling of comfort and security by providing deep pressure when draped over the body.
But, when it came to finding a weighted blanket that Ransom responded to, the design of most blankets available at that time fell short. Typically made from polyester and filled with plastic beads, the blankets felt clinical and sterile rather than warm and comforting. More than that, the blankets available agitated Ransom rather than soothed her, the sound of the polyester blanket coupled with the noise of the constantly shifting beads taking her out of her comfort zone. Weighted blankets were doing more harm than good.
“Ultimately we didn't bother much with this incredible [therapy] tool," says Hunter. "Her sensitivity to sound was overwhelming her to the point where it was no longer beneficial.”
Hunter used her background in fashion and design and set out to create a weighted blanket that was just as beautiful and cozy as it was functional, and the Sheltered Company was born. Using thick strips of recycled cotton jersey material that is hand-crocheted, she found that not only could she mimic the weighted feel of typically sterile-feeling blankets, she could also create something beautiful, sustainable, soft, and luxurious—making her blankets far more than just therapeutic.
“I was able to create something that was...downright life-changing for my daughter,” says Hunter. “We finally had [something] that helped her not only sleep through the night, but calmed her down any time during the day.... I'm proud that our blankets are sustainable works of art that are all made with deadstock fabric. I'm proud that we make everything by hand in our Los Angeles warehouse. I'm proud that we are able to offer a product that is stunning and not sterile- or clinical-looking.”
2. NoNetz swim wear
Who: Cathy Paraggio and son Chris What: Chafe-free swimsuits and rash guards When: 2012 Where: Based out of New York and manufactured in the USA
Why: Cathy Paraggio’s son, Chris, was always extremely sensitive to noise and textures. Those sensitivities were expressed when wearing all sorts of clothing, but it made dressing him in swim trunks particularly stressful. That sensitivity, and the tears it produced, made their trips to the beach an exercise in anxiety-management, rather than a relaxing respite.
“He hated the sand… I wanted one day of peace at the beach. [It was] always a ton of trouble with bathing suits,” says Paraggio. While her son’s sensitivities felt acute, resulting in meltdowns and constant tugging at his trunks, she began to take note that no men or boys seemed particularly comfortable in their swim trunks.
“I noticed meltdowns over bathing suits and men blatantly pulling at all parts of their suits.” She says she also noticed awkward problem-solving, with men wearing boxers underneath their suits or crab-walking to mitigate the all-day discomfort of thigh rash.
“I observed with empathy and a bit of relief [when I realized], oh, this is common,” says Paraggio.
Paraggio set out to design clothing with texture-sensitive people in mind and NoNetz was born.
The company’s anti-chafe swim trunks are smooth from the inside out. They’ve removed the internal net that holds sand, instead lining their suits with a soft fabric that feels soothing and silky to the touch, dries quickly, repels sand, and wicks away sweat when dry. The soft liner also, ingeniously, comes all the way around the waist-band, resulting in seam-free comfort for even the most texture-sensitive swimmers.
Furthermore, each design and design change is tested in the autistic community before it goes to production to ensure there is nothing about their product that's irritating or overstimulating. The practice has resulted in is a swimsuit that is so friendly to the texture sensitivities of the autistic community that Paraggio gets numerous reports of children choosing her NoNetz swimwear as sleepwear.
While her son was never officially diagnosed as autistic, Paraggio says she sees herself in the moms of autistic children. She had Chris tested numerous times as a child and feels that—had he been born 10 years later—it’s likely he would have fallen somewhere on the autism spectrum with what she refers to as his "high functioning sensitivities." As he enters into adulthood and pursues a career in music, she sees her son's heightened sensitivity as his greatest "superpower."
Not having a specific diagnosis, however, resulted in a lack of support systems. Because of that, she has always had a mission to help moms of kids with heightened sensitivities and she has been particularly committed to those within the autism community.
“I just hope I can bring peace to one small portion of their super challenging life,” says Paraggio.
3. Independence Day clothing
Who: Lauren Thierry and son Liam What: Adaptive clothing with a GPS option When: 2014 Where: White Plains, New York
Getting dressed in the morning may seem mundane to most of us but, for Lauren Thierry’s son, Liam, it was a major daily task, fraught with frustration. Liam is autistic and, despite years of patient teaching and the help of occupational therapists, he continued to face challenges in dressing himself independently as he entered adulthood.
Liam would struggle with buttons, zippers, and putting clothes on the right way. He would also get distracted by tags and collars and would get upset by irritating seams, making it nearly impossible for him to dress himself each morning.
Thierry, a former CNN financial anchor, searched far and wide for clothing that would solve these problems that are so common in the autism community. She was surprised to find that no one had figured out a solution to these basic challenges. Why couldn’t a T-shirt be made to worn inside out, or even backwards? Why couldn’t pants be made without irritating seams and challenging zippers? And why did adaptive clothing have to look so clinical?
Thierry saw a gap in the adaptive clothing market and decided that someone needed to fill it. She enlisted the help of a designer and together they created comfortable, problem-solving pieces under the name Independence Day Clothing. The easy-to-pull-on pieces feature flat seams, no distracting collars or tags, and each piece is reversible. Bonus: If an item gets stained, you can simply flip it inside-out.
"I know it sounds like such a non-issue, and yet, if your kid can't get dressed, they can't get out of the house," said Thierry, to USA Today."You start to realize Mom is not going to live forever."
The fully adaptive line of clothes for kids and adults is not only made with comfort and ease of dressing in mind, it's also keen on safety. As many parents of autistic children will tell you, elopement is a daily worry. Autistic children can be impulsive and wander from safe settings to something of interest, such as a body of water, or a wooded area—particularly when they are looking to avoid over stimulating noises, lights, or crowds.
Independence Day clothes come with an optional GPS tracker and discrete pockets to hide them, for wandering children who refuse to wear a tracking bracelet or pendant necklace.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.