May 20, 2014 6 Share

Clothes Make the Man

Illustration of man in shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap.

It’s 51 degrees out. Which means my 21-year-old son Mickey is wearing shorts and sandals.

“It’s too cold!” I protest.

“But it’s May.”

Well, yes.

I get it. He hates socks. Loathes sneakers. Long sleeves drive him crazy. If we let him, he’d leave the house wearing shorts and sandals in January, and probably without a coat. Winter weather doesn’t deter him. Which has turned me into the kind of mother who says, “I’m cold so you have to wear a sweater.”

I remember battling my own mother, who forced me to wear skirts with scratchy crinolines (yes, I’m that old.) Is that what it’s like for Mickey when we ask him to wear clothes that itch or cling or rub, or bother him in ways we don’t even know, because he can’t parse the particulars of his discomfort? “Because I hate it,” he says.  

I know how miserable I feel wearing Spanx. Is that how he feels about dress pants with a belt? Loafers? A blazer? Worst of all—a dreaded tie? “I want regular clothes,” he says.

I respect his sensory issues. I want to honor his right to choose what he wears. Unfortunately, there are just some circumstances where you can’t wear what you want, and it’s not only due to weather. Sometimes respecting his right to choose smacks up against the need to dress appropriately, whether it’s a volunteer job, visiting a house of worship, going on an interview, or hiking with his day hab group. It’s dangerous to climb a mountain in sandals, and disrespectful to  go to synagogue in a t-shirt and shorts.

“Just for today,” he pleads. “I’ll be careful.”

Why am I making a big deal about shorts and sandals? Am I worried someone will say, “How can you let him go out that way?” and judge me as a bad parent? Yes, it’s chilly, but he’s not going to die of exposure if he goes out underdressed for this weather. Maybe if he does realize it’s cold or wet and he’s not as comfortable as he thought he’d be, he will learn from it, and next time wear something more suitable.

Or not.

I try not to intervene with his choices unless health or safety is at stake. I may say, “What do you think your friends will be wearing today?” or “I don’t think those colors match,” but I won’t stop him if he’s really set on the combination. It’s a fine line between encouraging self-expression, and letting him leave the house wearing clothes that may make him an object of teasing or ridicule.

Haven’t I made similarly inappropriate choices? Worn high heels out of vanity, when I should have opted for more comfortable or practical footwear? Shivered in a thin summer dress I wanted to show off, instead of wearing something more sensible?

Mickey is a young adult now. He is chafing against our restraints. His struggle to pull away from us is developmentally appropriate. The business of adolescence and young adulthood is to separate from your parents, to find your own way in the world. Part of growing up for anyone is learning to make—and live with—one’s own choices.

He starts out the door in shorts and sandals, then goes back to his room. When he emerges, I see he has added a baseball cap and sunglasses. “I’m going to sunbathe today,” he says.

“Pack a sweatshirt,” I say. He doesn’t.

“I look handsome,” he says.

“Very cool,” I agree. And resolve to say nothing more.

Because it’s his choice to make. This isn’t about autism.

It’s about autonomy.

Comment Options

Sylvia (not verified)

Oh my! My daughter is the

Oh my! My daughter is the opposite! She wants to wear her winter coat, boots, gloves and long sleeves and long pants all summer! She even gets upset if I wear short sleeves! But we try to let her make her own clothing decisions within reason!

Anonymous (not verified)

Different choice of clothes

My son is exactly like your daughter when it comes to dressing. We have very warm temps in Texas but he wants to wear thermal shirts, thick velour pajama bottoms while at the house. We have the thermostat set on 80 during the summer so he shouldn't be cold. We were going to do work outside one 98 degree day and I told him he would have to wear a short sleeve t shirt. We went outside, he ran back in and came out in a leather jacket!

Anna (not verified)

Odd Clothing Tastes

I wore this in the middle of Winter:1. A thin, long-sleeved shirt2. Leggings3. Hiking sandals

Diane (not verified)

Love it!

It is so difficult to just keep my mouth shut. I believe in freedom of choice - except when it's my kids doing things I don't want them to do! Sigh.

Felicia (not verified)

I get it

Wow. I get it. We have these conversations & thoughts all the time with my son. I enjoyed seeing them expressed so well in print. Good luck. We're thrilled summer is here & that we go to a very informal house of worship.

Doreen McGettigan (not verified)

My 16 yr.old severly autistic grandson would go naked if we let him.Everything itches, scratches or pokes him. I keep telling my daughter to design a clothing line just for him.I also think, deciding what to wear is one of the first choices our kids can make on their own. I let mine get cold or hot and decide on their own to make better choices. It is a lot easier said than done.