Why do autistics struggle with clean clothes, and haircuts?

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Why do autistics struggle with clean clothes, and haircuts?

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!

If you or someone you know could use more information on how to thrive with autism, please join us for one of our upcoming webinars; even if you can’t attend, registering will give you a copy a the video recording.

Thrive With Autism Essentials gives you the three keys to help autistics thrive at home, school, and work.

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  1. Fiona says:

    And here I thought it was just me. I have a ‘uniform’ set as well (seasonally adjusted). I work from home which reduces all that ‘special circumstances’ thing. And I keep my hair long ’cause it’s just way easier that way on all manner of fronts. I do go in about once/year just for trim and special treatment – need to make it feel like a treat – but it always seems like a major wary-ordeal. Takes at least a day to manage the visit (not including all the time in figuring out when or how – which generally means I put it off even longer) and another to ‘recover.’ Sigh. Ah well, it’s just once a year and I do and can wear hats without much concern if I need to be out 😉
    Thanks for the info Jackie. And big hugs! F

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Hi Fiona,
      This “Highly Sensitive Person” thing being part of the spectrum is so fascinating to me. Right now I’m working with an HSP whose health challenges midlife were causing a slide into more obviously autistic symptoms, to her great dismay. We’re turning things around, but it would be so nice to have a culture willing to spot and address these health challenges as they occur, so the bigger pathologies just don’t ever show up!
      Regarding getting your hair cut, there are increasing numbers of SPAs which are removing toxic hair, nail, and other products from their selections. They tend to be a little more expensive, but also have no fluorescent lights, and often have a little water feature making pleasant background noise. Finding one might make your once-a-year event a lot less wary…
      Best Wishes and Hugs Back, Jackie

  2. Paula says:

    My son is in the spectrum, interestingly enough I have the same issues with clothing as him. I cant tolerate necks other than V shape, anything close to my collar bone drives me crazy, same if the sleeve border is exactly at the elbow level.
    What called my attention is that you mention you get used to them and as long as you dont change, you can wear the clothes.
    I really have this problem since I have memory, and never got used to any of it. Any advise, I mean, it is ok, I manage, when on cold places I use a scarf but far away from my neck
    My son has the neck problem, he doesnt seem to mind about the sleeves as much

    Thank you!

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Hi Paula,
      There is some emergence of research linking hypersensitivity to a lack of Potassium (K+) in the body. This is very likely, as K+ is one of the nutrients which can get burned through really quickly when detox pathways are clogged (and remember, all autistics have impaired detoxification). Potassium broth is easy to make with organic veggie peels, or with the pulp left over when you make juice in a juicer. Simmer (don’t boil; you’ll keep more of the vitamins that way) the pulp or peelings in filtered water until the colour has left the vegetables, and entered the water. Strain off through a cloth-lined sieve (I like to squeeze the extra liquid out before composting the leftover veggie solids), and drink the liquid instead of water, tea, or juice, keeping it in the fridge.
      We autistics have found that supplementing with K+ can make a big difference to how sensitive the skin is, but there is a challenge with non-food sourced supplements, in that many supplements are not in a form that body can easily absorb (even more of a challenge for those of us with autism), and in that many of us autistics will react to the fillers, etc. The K+ broth is a way of significantly increasing your K+ intake without paying a drug company unnecessarily, too. Autism is expensive enough!

  3. Sharon Boyd says:

    Jackie, thank you so much….you and your team are such treasures.

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