I’m not the most fashionable person on the planet, but I do like to dress nice, because I enjoy the aesthetics of well-cut, well made clothes, and because nice materials like high quality linen and silk are much easier on my sensitive skin than cheap, itchy cotton-polyester blends. I also consider wearing clothes to be an extension of my artistic side, and greatly enjoy unique items of clothing, like my ever beloved Gustav Klimt skirt (seen here) my singing phoenix skirt (seen here) and a variety of colourful scarves. Which is why it surprised me greatly when a professional who works with other autistic people complimented me on my “tidy” appearance, and said she was glad to see me dressed so “nice and feminine” because apparently most of her autistic woman clients didn’t, in her words, “take the same pride in their appearance.”
I don’t believe that I take more pride in my appearance than other autistic women, personally, or other autistics in general. I dress the way I do because it’s what works for my particular sensory issues, and I enjoy the unique “look” my clothing gives me. My friends tell me that they can always tell it’s me from a distance, because only I would dress the way I do. How nice is that? Some autistic people may be more comfortable in more baggy clothing, because of issues related to self-esteem, tactile sensations of certain clothing, discomfort with tags or fabrics, or because that’s what they like to see when they look in the mirror. Some autistic people (Myself included, related to my midriff and previously, my shoulders) are uncomfortable exposing certain parts of their body or showing of the silhouette of their bodies, and may want to dress accordingly (You will never see me in a bikini, and until a certain age I covered my shoulders in a bathing suit with a t-shirt until I found beachwear coveralls)
So what? It seemed that this woman’s biggest problem with the way other autistic women dressed was that they were not as conventionally feminine as my clothing choices make me out to be, and didn’t wear perfume or deodorant. See, I have sensory issues with certain perfumes as well, and certain deodorants, but I was lucky enough to find a type in both varieties lacking in the ingredients which irritated me. Some autistic people with more delicate olfactory senses aren’t going to take as easily to some deodorants and perfumes. Rather than chiding them for not wanting to suffer for the sake of smelling good, it’s more productive to recommend products which are less likely to irritate. Since there are many individuals with allergies these days, more and more workplaces are putting restrictions on perfume/incense/scent use anyways, and there are plenty of deodorants which don’t cause irritation, my personal favourites (Though it may not work for all) being Tom’s of Maine . If certain clothing itches or irritates, or causes problems in other areas, it’s only natural to figure out what clothing works best. I’ve seen some autistic women turning to specialized modesty clothing stores for religious women, because the fabrics and materials used are higher quality, and they cover more, meaning less discomfort for women with certain bodily issues like me with my midriff. Ditto hygienic issues. It can run into expensive territory, but I can’t use cheap drug-store soaps and shampoos without my skin breaking out in red, itchy puffs, and many autistic people would rather be smelly than suffer that sensory onslaught. Don’t shame them, find a solution!
It’s problematic that we tie so much of personal appearance (just look at the phrase “taking pride in it”) into whether a person is worthy, successful, happy, or healthy. I’m not happier or more successful than an autistic woman who shuns jewelry, keeps her hair short, and lives in her sweatpants. Often, all it is an indicator of is what she finds comfortable, suits her lifestyle, and gives her the least sensory trouble as compared to me. If there is something somewhat problematic in terms of dress or hygiene, it’s not right to think she just doesn’t care or is lazy. It’s usually a sensory problem she can’t figure out a means to express, or one you’ve ignored because you’re not listening properly.