Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
One of the first few times I dressed in a colorful, whimsical outfit — with knee-length striped rainbow socks and a purple tutu — I went to the mall with my two best friends.
As we snaked our way through various jewelry kiosks and clothing stores, shoppers and staff turned to stare at me. Sometimes they’d verbally compliment my outfit, other times they’d jeer at me and insult my style choices.
My friends were taken aback, unused to so much attention as middle schoolers, but it felt familiar to me. It was far from the first time I’d been stared at.
I was diagnosed with autism as a kid. My entire life, people have looked at me, whispered about me, and made comments to me (or my parents) in public because I was flapping my hands, twirling my feet, having difficulty walking up and down the stairs, or looking completely lost in a crowd.
So when I put on that pair of rainbow knee highs, I didn’t intend for them to be a way to embrace being autistic in all its forms — but the moment I realized people were watching me because of how I was dressed, that’s what it became.
Fashion as a special interest
Fashion wasn’t always this important to me.
I started dressing in colorful outfits when I was 14 as a way to get through the long days of eighth grade spent being bullied for coming out as queer.
But bright, fun clothing quickly became a special interest of mine. Most autistic people have one or more special interests, which are intense, passionate interests in a specific thing.
The more I meticulously planned out my daily outfits and gathered new patterned socks and glitter bracelets, the happier I was. Research has shown that when children on the autism spectrum talk about their special interests, their behavior, communication, and social and emotional skills improve.
Sharing my love of quirky fashion with the world by wearing it every day did and still does bring me joy.
Such as the night while I was catching the train platform home, an older woman stopped me to ask if I was in a performance.
Or the time someone gushed about my outfit to their friend next to them.
Or even the several times strangers have asked for my photo because they like what I’m wearing.
Whimsical clothing now acts as a form of acceptance and self-care
Autistic wellness conversations are often centered around medical treatments and therapies, like occupational therapy, physical therapy, workplace training, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
But really, these conversations should take a more holistic approach. And for me, fashion is a part of this approach. So when I pull together fun outfits and wear them, it’s a form of self-care: I’m choosing to engage in something I love that not only brings me a sense of joy, but acceptance.
Fashion also helps me from getting sensory overload. For example, as an autistic person, things like professional events can be a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of harsh sensory input to parse, from bright lights and crowded rooms to uncomfortable seats.
But wearing an outfit that’s comfortable — and a little whimsical — helps me practice mindfulness and stay grounded. If I feel frazzled, I can take a look at my seahorse dress and fish bracelet and remind myself of the simple things that bring me joy.
For a recent event where I’d be doing live social media coverage for a local Boston giving circle, I pulled on a mid-length black-and-white striped dress, blue blazer covered in umbrellas, rotary phone purse, and gold glitter sneakers and headed out the door. All night my outfit and purple ombre hair attracted compliments from the nonprofit employees and giving circle members in attendance.
It reminded me that making choices that empower me, even something as small as colorful hair, are powerful tools of confidence and self-expression.
I don’t have to choose between being myself and being seen as only my diagnosis. I can be both.
What was once a coping mechanism turned into self-expression
While fashion started as a coping mechanism, it slowly evolved into a mode of confidence and self-expression. People often question my style choices, asking if this is the message I want to send the world — especially the professional world — about who I am.
I feel like I have no choice other than to say yes.
I’m autistic. I will always stand out. I’m always going to see the world and communicate a little differently than non-autistic people around me, whether that means getting up in the middle of writing this essay to take a 10-minute dance break and flap my hands around, or temporarily losing the ability to verbally communicate when my brain is overwhelmed.
If I’m going to be different no matter what, I’d rather be different in a way that brings me joy.
By wearing a dress covered in rainbow books, I am reinforcing the idea that I’m proud to be autistic — that I don’t need to change who I am to fit other people’s standards.
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She's currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.