A huge portion of the American population has special needs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 Americans has a disability or functional impairment (visual, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer's, ADHD and/or autism) and 1 in 68 children can be said to be on the autism spectrum disorder.
The potential for “adaptive clothing,” which can be introduced for those with an inability to dress themselves properly, comfortably or independently, is massive for this population that continues to be under-served when it comes to practical and thoughtful fashion .
Lauren Thierry and her team at Independence Day Wearable Tech have successfully developed a clothing line for teenagers that redefines the term "smart" casual. The clothing is consciously designed without tags, seams, zippers, laces and buttons in breathable performance wear fabrics. It is also double-sided and equally meted at the crotch, seat and/or neckline, eliminating the opportunity for these kids to put anything on backwards or inside out. Most thought provoking, however, is the hidden compartment sewn into the clothing, which allows for optional GPS tracking and other monitoring devices. Check out the video [and stay put for our interview with Lauren, after the jump]:
NIN: You're the mother of a teenage son living with autism and have spent numerous years advocating and raising awareness for the community, including directing/producing the documentary “Autism Every Day” but was there a particular moment when the idea for ID was born?
Lauren: Yes. Liam was born in 1997. Back in those ancient days pediatricians were not that wild about looking you in the eye and saying, "Hey, Mom, your kid has a problem." So we went on a bit of a journey. We were first-time parents, so we didn’t really know what was normal and what wasn’t. One of the things that Liam was not doing was he wasn’t making sustained eye contact, and that was a little bit of a red flag. Anyway, by the time he was 22 months, he was diagnosed with autism.
NIN: And what sparked the idea for the clothing?
Lauren: I love that question and I love answering it. A lot of people ask me, "Why do your clothes start for tweens, what about little kids?" Here’s why. In my experience, and in the experience of 100s of other mothers I have spoken to either anecdotally or with focus groups, a normal kid takes an interest in dressing themselves around 3, 4 or 5 years of age. To market to moms whose kids are 3, 4 and 5, well, that’s just going to be ridiculous. Those moms are living with the dream that with just a couple more years of occupational therapy, my kid is going to be able to dress himself no problem.
Then your kid hits 5, 6 and, all-of-a-sudden, moms with special-needs kids start saying, "You know what? It’s really okay if he doesn’t tie his shoelaces, there are slip-ons and Velcro, so let’s tell the occupational therapist to stop trying to teach him how to tie his shoes."
Then they hit 8, 9. By then you’ve been given the protocol of "Do not help your son or daughter get dressed, this will only create a dependency, you must step away and let him or her make those mistakes." That means mom gets up at 5 o’clock in the morning, because she knows it’s going to be at least a 30-minute ordeal every single day of his life.
When he gets to about age 10 or 11, this feeling kind of comes over a lot of moms, "You know what, he’s probably either never going to, or it will still become enormously difficult for him to, tell front from back or to get it on quickly." There is a bus waiting in the driveway every morning. In my case, it’s at 7:25 and my kid is still standing around in his underwear. If you don’t have kids, you don’t know this, but if your kid misses the bus that day, there goes your day.
If that happens every single day, you are losing moments of your day. We're giving these mothers back 30, 40, 50 minutes of every day by saying these clothes are foolproof.
There was one crystallizing moment, though. Liam came out of the men’s room at a Mets game with his jeans down around his thighs. He was 12. I was mortified. I just said "That’s it, there has to be a better way."
NIN: That must have been pretty traumatizing for him.
Lauren: Yes, it was traumatizing. It just crystallized everything. They don’t allow women in the men’s room. I let him go in there by himself, standing right outside the door and that’s how he walked out. So, it’s the cliché - necessity is the mother of invention.
NIN: There’s also the sensory issues that some of these children have. It must make it very difficult in terms of the rubbing or the noises or the scratching of the clothing.
Lauren: Completely. If you don’t have sensory issues, it’s very hard to imagine a child absolutely feeling imprisoned by their clothing, whether it’s a toe seam, a tag in the back of a shirt, or certain fabrics that are just not comfortable.
There are a lot of behaviors that people look at with people with autism. I have strong anecdotal evidence of seeing those behaviors disappear when the clothes they are wearing are comfortable.
NIN: Can you tell us where the idea of putting the smart GPS devices on the clothing came from?
Lauren: A year and a half ago a big study was released about wandering, which is also called "elopement." One in four kids on the autism spectrum will at some point get lost. One in ten will require police intervention. I read the study and said, "Well, why can’t we just GPS the kids?" So, I started asking around and I was getting a lot of resistance. People were saying "That’s so Big Brother, ya know, that’s horrible." And I said, "If your child were missing, Big Brother would be the least of your problems."
NIN: You are working with Empower GPS systems. How exactly does it work? Is it something you download to your smartphone?
Lauren: It is. I have an app on my phone. Anytime I want to know where my kid is, I whip out my cellphone, I hit the app, and I know exactly where he is in under four seconds. The unit in the clothes is about the size of a domino.
NIN: How are you able to offer the GPS devices for free on your website?
Lauren: I got really passionate and I got really tough. I said to Michael Christie, who’s the president of global tracking systems [Phoenix 5], "We gotta give these GPS devices away if only just to get them into the hands of the parents." A lot of these people may not be technologically savvy or they may be in denial that their kids need them. I said, "Let’s make it easy, let’s give the device away for free, and then charge the monthly subscription rate, but let’s give them the device." I’m a big believer that if I can handle that device, if I can have it in my hand and see it and see the little compartment that it goes into in the clothes, then you are going to see it is not that hard.
NIN: In overall terms, are you finding that the pushback or this whole “Big Brother” monitoring thing has gotten easier?
Lauren: Oh, it’s completely disappeared. I was speaking at a conference about six months ago and that question came up and I finally just said, "The technology is out there and the genie is not going back in the bottle." Let’s put technology in the hands of good decent hard working parents who just want to know where their kid is. Let’s save a kid’s life.
NIN: Back to your clothing. Do you remember the first time it was worn?
Lauren: The very first test where it was worn was on my own son. Have you had a chance to see the video? [Embedded above] That was day one. I really wanted to document the real thing. That was day one right before we launched in April of 2014. That is him getting dressed and walking out to get on the school bus.
NIN: Are you able to tell us how that made him feel?
Lauren: For kids that have more verbal skills than my son, I think it’s got to instill a sense of dignity in them. Liam got dressed that morning in those clothes and did not have one single temper tantrum. I think a lot of the time these kids have temper tantrums because they can’t verbalize why they are frustrated. He didn’t have a single one. Their dignity is at stake here.
Liam has two younger brothers, 12-year-old twin boys who are -- ya know, they are just badass typical 12 year olds. They get dressed in 30 seconds and they're on the bus a minute later. I designed the clothes as much for them as I did for Liam. I didn’t want Liam’s siblings to be embarrassed by him. There were too many times where I had no choice but to dress Liam in a baggy pair of sweats and a monochrome t-shirt just because it was easy. And because, if he got the shirt on inside out or backwards, you probably couldn’t really tell. And there would be Liam walking down the street with his nicely turned out brothers. And they would say, "Mom, Liam looks like a homeless person." I realized it was a whole family issue. If Liam can blend in and look like everybody else, isn’t that better for the whole family.
NIN: How was it for you, seeing him getting dressed by himself?
Lauren: You just have no idea. I mean, twelve years of getting up at 5 a.m., bracing myself for the dressing portion of the day, not having me turn to my other kids and say "Don’t bother me now, I’m trying to make Liam get dressed." How do you think they felt for their entire lives, my saying "Get your own cereal." All of a sudden, I had forty-five minutes, and I could say, "Hey, you’ve got tennis today...Great! You’ve got lacrosse practice? I’ll drive you. You know, let’s eat Cheerios together." What a difference in our entire quality of life. If your kids are happy, you’re happy. All of a sudden, I could be a human being.
NIN: Are you able to do any sort of follow-ups on others that have worn ID clothing.
Lauren: I have actually interviewed families where we literally see the kid get dressed in the clothes and you see the mom responding and the whole bit. Yes, the response has been really positive, really really sweet.
NIN: Last but not least, is there something currently impossible that you would love to make NOT impossible?
Lauren: On a personal note, it seems to be almost impossible for my son Liam to tell me where it hurts. If you’re a mother, that’s one of those big things. I would wish that it would be possible for him to be able to tell me.
On a much more global level, what seems to be impossible right now is that it’s impossible for our kids to get good group living arrangements, because a lot of the states have put a moratorium on group homes. So, my son has now just turned seventeen and a bunch of us are scrambling to find an answer. Right now, we’re finding that it is impossible for us to find a place for our kids to go once they hit 21. It’s what I stay awake at 3 a.m. worrying about every night. I would like for it to be possible for the same society that can put webcams in doggie daycare to make safe group homes for these kids a priority.