Why do autistics wear the same clothes all the time, or not want to get a haircut?
Let’s start with clothes. There can be a couple of reasons that an autistic doesn’t like to wear clean clothes. The first reason is that the sensations of clothes on your body can be distracting. For most people, clothes will only be distracting if they’re rubbing a blister on your foot, or you’ve eaten too much and your belt feels over-tight. These things can be uncomfortable enough for a neuro-typical (non-autistic person) to the point at which it’s hard to pay attention to anything else, such as a conversation.
But when you’re autistic, and you’re taking in that much more sensory information, the discomfort is magnified. Every time we change what we’re wearing, the clothes fit differently on our bodies. These differences can be more distracting to us than that shoe rubbing a blister, for you. As a result, we tend to have what I call our “uniforms”, which means that we have clothes that are very, very similar which we wear throughout the year.
While I have a friend who wears shorts all through the Canadian winter to avoid the distraction of changing sensations, I can stand some seasonal change a little better, so I switch from turtlenecks in winter to T-shirts, come warmer weather. But all through the year, hot weather or cold, I’m usually wearing pants with very similar fibers and styles. This allows me to focus on what’s going on around me better, because I’m not distracted by my clothes confining me in different ways, or rubbing my skin with different textures.
Special occasions can be quite complicated. During celebratory events, as a woman I am expected to wear nice shoes and a dress, which fit quite differently from my usual uniform. It is also getting quite difficult to find nice dresses in natural fibres. Just as Judith Bluestone finds for herself, I am extremely uncomfortable wearing synthetics. Dresses bind differently, rub your skin in different places, and sometimes keep your arms and legs from moving much without cutting into your skin. This is very distracting.
During occasions where I’d really like to be as able as I can to pay attention to people’s faces, their words, and their emotions, my clothes can prevent me from fully engaging because of the sensory distractions. I must turn off my awareness of certain senses in order to be able to cope with being in that different outfit. This can make complicated conversation well beyond me in these contexts. So sensory overwhelm is the first issue with clothes.
The second issue with clothes has to do with laundry products. Most of the commonly-available brand-name laundry products have toxic components in them, some of which are their fragrances. Scents are in the same chemical class as neurotransmitters, the chemicals that send messages between nerves; many scents are also mimic hormones.
When we’re breathing, we can be taking in toxins. Breathing is the fastest way to absorb things into the bloodstream, which asthma sufferers truly appreciate (inhalers). But what we breathe in can also be driving our neurons, and our hormones from outside the body. Most healthy people don’t have this problem — though sometimes women notice extra sensitivity to fragrances during pregnancy, when they are “peeing for two” — because their liver and kidneys are working well. So as they breathe these things in, the liver and kidneys are cleaning it out of the bloodstream, and packing it away in fat cells, so that they don’t really notice that there’s a problem with these scents.
Unfortunately, when you’re autistic and impaired detoxification is — for you — one of the major underlying health problems, you breathe fragrance chemicals in, and they enter every cell. They cross the blood-brain barrier. They drive your neural reactions, and your hormonal reactions, from the outside in. While you may feel that you just dislike scent, it would be worth taking a look at my YouTube video on Masking, Acclimatization, and Dissociation to see if any of these are at play for you, hiding the underlying toxicity.
Smells which healthier people may be really happy to encounter can cause a great deal of physical disruption, harm, and pain to an autistic.
The challenges with haircuts are very closely related to those with clean clothes. Stop for a moment and just think about your last haircut. Think of the sensory stimulation of a barbershop or hairdresser’s shop. There are flickering fluorescent lights overhead. Most surfaces are hard, so noises bouncing off these surfaces and echo around the room. All of the mirrors reflect any distracting movements all over the room. And the smell is appalling. As soon as you open the door, the stench of really toxic products rolls right up your nose, and pervades your clothes.
These products are a problem for hairdressers and barbers, too. People in this line of work tend to get cancers and other auto-immune disorders much worse, and at much younger ages than most other people in our population do, because of their daily exposure to these toxic hair products.
But when you have autism, and you get that initial blast of toxins as you open the door, it can really hurt your cognitive function, your reaction times, your pain levels, and your emotional friability. It can also make you feel sick, and as a result, you don’t want to be there, and don’t want to even enter the door. If you want to cut an autistic’s hair, try doing it out in a yard, or in a city park under trees. And choose non-toxic hair products, please!
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