When Helen Sandison of Mullingar based Sensory Clothing moved over to Kerry from the UK in 2007 with her husband Rudi, she couldn’t understand why her two-year-old child kept telling her that he didn’t like his clothes, especially his socks. It became normal for him to hide behind their sofa and then pop out with his clothes off. However, like most first-time parents – Helen just thought that it was something that he would eventually grow out of. A year later, her second child arrived, and she found herself juggling the needs of a new baby while battling with a toddler over his dislike of clothes. “I did wonder whether I had been pandering to my son, but nevertheless I took him to the doctor’s because I knew there was something wrong. You could call it a mother’s intuition. My son was tested for Autism (ASD) but we were told that he simply had some little quirks and wasn’t on the Autism Spectrum itself. I just had to cope with his meltdowns over the clothing.” It turned out that Helen’s son has a neurological condition called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) which is often misdiagnosed as ASD because many children with ASD have sensory issues or difficulties. However, as in the case of Helen’s child, SPD was a standalone condition.
A child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) gets overwhelmed by the information coming through their senses such as textures, sounds, bright lights or by being in large groups of people. Shopping centres are particularly difficult. Often this will result in the child displaying emotional/behavioural problems that will take their toll on the whole family. According to research, SPD affects approximately 5% of school-aged children. “My son hated wearing socks, so I told him not to wear them because it didn’t matter. Also, I started to carefully cut out all the labels from my son’s clothing because he was in pain every time a label rubbed against his skin.” Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t the vast amount of information on SPD that there is now, and Helen felt as if she was the only person in the world with a child refusing to wear clothes. “He hated getting his hair cut and toothpaste always burnt him or stung him. It was tough, but he was my child. Now there is so much support on Facebook. In the last decade, a lot of parents of children with SPD have made loud noises.”
Shopping for products
Helen was always searching for soft socks that didn’t have the seam on the side. For a long time, her son didn’t wear any socks. “One time I found some long sleeve thermal long johns in Aldi that were made with a flat seam that he really liked, so I went back and bought them in every colour I could find! I could finally get him to wear anything as long as he had his thermals on underneath.” As the years went by and the internet grew, Helen was always researching to see if other people had similar experiences to hers. SPD is hugely acknowledged in the U.S. but not so much in Ireland or the UK, so it is easier to buy specialist clothing from the U.S. “About 11 years ago I found a company in the U.S. that manufactured seamless socks. They were about 20 euros for a single pair of socks, and I thought that we can’t be the only people who were struggling to find such items. Then my husband Rudi lost his job as well and despite the socks being very expensive, we knew that our son needed them.” Even basic things such as her son’s school jumper had to be washed about five times before he could wear it for the first time, “His school have been fantastic and ever so supportive of him.”
Helen grew up in a UK town called Slough in Berkshire. Slough is fondly remembered as being the birthplace of the Mars chocolate bar. Both of Helen’s parents are Irish – her father is from Kerry; her mother is from Mayo. “We lived in Kerry for about 8 years and then when my husband lost his job, he decided to change career and went to Athlone Institute of Technology. He just phoned me one day and said that he didn’t want to come back to Kerry and preferred it in Westmeath, so we all packed and moved up here to join him in Mullingar in 2013.”
When Helen moved to Mullingar, her two children were getting older, and she didn’t know what to do with her spare time. “I had been at home with the kids for 10-12 years and had been working till we moved to Mullingar, and had talked about setting up a business to supply products to parents in my situation.” It was then that the idea of Sensory Clothing was born. Fortunately, Helen’s brother-in-law built her website and the business went live in July 2018. She was purchasing stock from a manufacturer from the U.S. but the cost of shipping to Ireland was more than the price of the good themselves and Helen realised that she needed to find an alternative.
In January 2020, Helen started looking for manufacturers in Ireland that could make items for Sensory Clothing. She spoke to numerous fashion houses only to discover that no specialist machinery could do the linking in the seam (to stop the seam from having the join) in Ireland. She eventually found a European company that could manufacture a sock product, and Helen and the manufacturer began the process of perfecting a pair of Sensory Clothing branded socks that she could sell online. “They put the sensory clothing name on one of the samples and when you turned it inside out it was a mess and I rejected that particular idea and decided that we should just go plain. I required that the sock had to be seamless in the toe. My socks have no heel and therefore do not restrict the foot whatsoever. Sometimes a heel can make a child with SPD feel that their toes are scrunching. We also sell undies and compression vests that come from the U.S. The compression vest is more of an ASD thing. Quite common with ASD children is high anxiety – the vest helps the child to feel as if they are being cuddled – reducing anxiety and helping the child to regulate their breathing.”
The business has been doing very well and sometimes parents will ring her up simply to ask Helen for advice. “Quite often people ring me up and are embarrassed by their child’s condition. We all think we are the only ones; we think it’s only our child. I’ve done some courses too to find out more about the condition itself. I have had many repeat visitors and the feedback to Sensory Clothing has been truly fantastic, sometimes I feel out of my depth, but I love the engagement. I contacted the school-age and early intervention teams at the HSE, and they have taken lots of my flyers and recommend my products to parents of children with ASD and SPD that they come into contact with”.
Helen has practical experience as a parent of a child suffering from SPD and is probably the most positive person you could meet. She describes herself as a well-functioning adult who used to get stressed trying to get her child ready in the morning. This is something that many people across the world can relate to. She has attended a great many business courses to equip her to run her business, and everything to date has been self-financed. “I am going to look at selling my own branded undies and vests and would love to manufacture those items here in Ireland. I’m working full-time on the business, and I have to pinch myself every day that it’s not just a dream! I am a firm believer that you only regret what you don’t do.” The woman from the home of the Mars bar is now helping Irish parents to work, rest and play!
This article was published in the Westmeath Examiner 09/02/2021