Now for some feel-good news, literally. After school hours, Boston Public Schools paraprofessional Julia DeNey makes clothes for children with autism and sensory processing disorder. Her new company, Sense-ational You, focuses on what she calls inclusive, unisex fashion for kids ages 4 to 14: sweatshirts with sound-reducing hoods and eye masks, label-free clothes with magnetic closures and elastic waistbands for easier adjusting, and compression-lined T- shirts. In 2021, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Up to 16 percent of school-aged kids are affected with sensory processing disorders.
DeNey graduated from Cornell University in 2020, where she majored in fiber science and intended to work in children’s fashion design. But the East Cambridge resident landed a job working with autistic children at Warren-Prescott School in Charlestown. There, many parents told her about the challenges that their kids faced when getting dressed.
DeNey recalls a pivotal moment in her classroom when a little girl couldn’t stop pulling at a label.
“I just immediately took the scissors and cut out the label out for her. She was able to line up with her friends and carry on to the next class,” she says.
She knew something had to be done. So DeNey spent more than a year surveying parents and autistic adults for her design ideas, explored various specialty manufacturers, and went through four rounds of sample reviews to ensure quality control. Clothes are designed with exacting specifications.
“Sensory-friendly clothing generally means that there are no tags, flat seams, and usually a soft knit. I try to go further than that as a brand and have magnetic closures so that there are no zippers or snaps rubbing in the way. This makes it more fine-motor-friendly, since a lot of autistic children struggle with their fine motor skills,” DeNey says. “I wanted to make sure we could promote independent dressing and help [kids] do that, even if zippers and snaps and buttons were challenging.”
DeNey conducts most of her design work after school hours, often from home, and collaborates with a consultant manufacturing partner, Texas-based Alice James Global, to assist with locating fair-wage factories and shipping.
The brand formally launched in April. She hopes that her new line promotes independence for her students — and any child with sensory challenges — because she knows that a tough morning can derail an entire day.
“We’re trying to teach our kids as much independence as possible. When they come in, they can take off their jacket and put it in their cubby. When it’s hard for them to hold on to the zipper, it’s really easy to get really frustrated. And then they don’t even want to try it, or it can lead to a meltdown. Mornings are difficult,” she says.
Customers can shop online at www.shopsenseationalyou.com. The online retail model is an added bonus for families.
“I know shopping in person can be really challenging, especially with kids with sensory needs. Stores can be really loud, crowded, and overwhelming,” DeNey says. “[Clothes] are not something kids can just learn to deal with. And they shouldn’t have to.”