On leopard print bras and girls with autism


A friend  has been giving us bags of her daughter’s clothing for many years.   The daughter is a cheerleader,  a dancer, a black belt in Karate, a popular girl. They give us Hollister bags packed with neatly folded t-shirts,  denim skirts with sparkly embroidery,  and camis of every color and style.  Lately we’ve been reaching in those bags and pulling out lacy bras, animal prints……..items that I wouldn’t think to buy for my daughter with autism.

As early as  fourth and fifth grade, it’s easy to see which girls are going to be popular: the ones with clothes from the trendy stores, the ones who have good haircuts, just right clothes. How do they know what’s in, and what looks good?

The bags of clothing inform me and challenge me.  Typical teen girls spend a lot of time trying and retrying different combinations of clothing. Figuring out new looks and new identities. Trying desperately to be comfortable in changed bodies. As I pull the items out of the bags,  I think:  how do I know which cami goes under which shirt? When is it okay to show straps?   Will these shorts cover the important parts? Teen girls beg their moms to go shopping, and hide clothes and make-up that don’t pass scrutiny so they can  change  when they are out of Mom’s sight.

How many times an hour does a typical girl adjust her clothing? How many times a day does she check her hair in the mirror? Unconsciously check her hair with her hand?  How do I get my daughter with autism to check all of this when she is away from me?  Which fashions will hold up with the least amount of tugging?

I remember when I was in middle school, banished to sitting on the  hallway floor for passing notes in math class, I was approached by an older boy who reached out his hand  to touch my breast.  I told him to leave me alone.  What would a girl with ASD do?   Should we keep our girls covered safely with loose hoodies,  dress unattractively, to avoid unwanted attention? Will that even make a difference? Rates of sexual assault for girls and women with disabilities are 2 times the rates of  those without disabilities.

I look at styles in stores and on the internet.  I think about what styles might work for my daughter, or other girls with autism.  I look at what girls are wearing : the teens on Facebook  pose provocatively  in strapless dresses, leaning forward to allow a peek.

I look at celebrity role models and I get confused. I think about Selena Gomez, growing from Barney to Disney to Justin Bieber. Miley Cyrus, moving from Hannah Montana to pole dancing.  Pretty Little Liars? Gossip Girls? Rihanna?   Down the rabbit hole we fall….but it changes the story if mom is right next to  Alice, pointing out the just-right bottle.

So we want our girls to look cute, and “in” and socially acceptable. We want them to explore and find their own identities. But…. what if they are stuck in Pokemon world? Do we push them to learn about sexy?   We want them to have friends…….but do the other girls have to be so ….mature? How can our daughters have friends, when the other girls are interested in romance and Vampires, and ours are talking non-stop about Phineas and Ferb?

There are so many questions. Do we bring our girls to Victoria’s Secret and encourage them to replace sports bras with  push up bras? Do we even tell them about thongs?

Schools with uniforms are a huge relief – although it’s possible to look attractive in a polo and khakis, there are no cut off sweatpants with “hottie” blazing across the behind. Maybe there is some middle ground.  We can steer our girls to the fashionable comfort of yoga pants if they hate  jeans.    Tankinis cover better than bikinis. In social skills group, we play clothing bingo to learn all of the words: sequin, spaghetti strap, jeggings, poncho.  I leave the Hollister bag at home, and pull the items out of a laundry basket.  The girls are scared by lacy lingerie, but find the animal prints intriguing.

Formation of an identity separate from the mother is a  critical development stage  for a young woman.  Do we allow our  teenage girls with autism to stay safe in their obsessions with horses and princesses?   How do we keep them safe, but push them to explore a whole new world?

I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole-and yet-and yet-it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me!

(Lewis Caroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

11 responses »

  1. You bring up some really really good points here, Julie. Being a male who teaches social skills to young women, this is something that I struggle to teach and can’t even really understand the gravity of. I can tell them never to wear sweatpants and those baggy, hoodless sweatshirts for fear of being automatically rejected based on their appearance, but I will never truly understand the implications of being a girl in sexy clothing. Or of being female at all, for that matter.

    The sad truth is that people are taken advantage of no matter what they wear. Allowing them to dress as if they are perpetually four years old (Disney sweatshirts, sweatpants, Velcro sneakers, etc) is comfortable and might help avoid unwanted attention, but it will also immediately mark them as a target for being picked on and as someone that people will avoid. Such tough decisions to make! A typical child will, as you said, determine what’s in and what they like and find a way to wear it, with or without their parents’ blessing. For a parent of a child with ASD, there is more control. What is the responsibility? To dress your child as you would like them to dress because you do have that control? Or to expose them to the forces that determine what their peers are deciding to wear?

    • My answer to this: teach them Karate. And then teach them about fashion and let them make choices within limits as you would for a typical child.
      Both my girls have been in Karate since elementary school. I wasn’t sure that a “mainstream” karate school would effectively teach my daughter with autism, so I found a group of moms who wanted the same thing, and we did what moms do: we created an alternative Karate school, Good Shepherd Karate Academy. We have fantastic teachers, and the students are really amazing!
      There are other important pieces that need to be taught from early on: girls need to learn to take care of their own bodies, and feel ownership of their own bodies. Girls need to be able to set limits on body contact — and know how to protest and refuse unwanted body contact. It helps a lot if girls have adults in their lives who they can talk to about sexuality, bodies, and relationships.

      • Karate may help with unwanted advances but my bigger concern is when they have agreed to the physical contact because a boy – or even some of their friends – have duped them into thinking it’s what they are supposed to do!

      • I was just talking to my girls about how to explain about Karate. We think, it’s not just about defending yourself in a scary moment. It’s about years of practicing setting boundaries on physical contact. An underlying premise is that the person should have control over contact to their body. When girls can get comfortable sparring with boys, it just changes the power relationships with ALL boys.
        At the same time, I think that some girls are extremely vulnerable. If they don’t have many friends and desperately want them, they will do whatever it takes to get friends. I found this Truth or Dare app, and practiced playing it with some of the girls. We talked about what we were comfortable doing and saying, and practiced saying no to requests that made us uncomfortable. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

  2. Great points Miss. Julie. As a mom of a teenage girl I try to let her pick out clothes that make her happy. I have been lucky that she likes clothes that fit ‘just right’. Too tight is out no matter what and showing off something while bending over is wrong. Alot of girls dress because of peer pressure. I have taught her that she has the right to say NO to anyone trying to touch her but I am not sure how much she takes away with her. I have tried to tell her that its her body and she has control over it but I am always worried that someone will talk her into something because she cannot understand what is being asked. As parents we walk a fine line with control and independence. I want her to like herself and how she looks and compromise when we can, but I will not allow her to be seen in something inappropriate just to ‘fit in’. Thanks for a great blog!

  3. I read this post several days ago and have been thinking of it ever since. I wish that it was a subject we could open a book on and find the correct answer to! But as with so many things with our aspie kids, it’s just not in the manual!
    And I think voseharvey makes a good point – allowing them to dress too immaturely opens them up to more teasing.

    I think, unfortunately, there are bad people in this world who may take advantage of our girls no matter what they are wearing – an oversized hoodie or spaghetti straps and a thong.

    The only answer I feel in my gut is to have some very frank conversations with them to try to help them understand some innuendo and to explain to them that boys hormones often rule their thinking. Then hold your breathe and pray.

  4. Hi,
    I was googling about my daughter’s behavior and came across this. My daughter who is 11 years old has some social issues and it has been hard for her to make friends. She doesnt want to be with the somewhat quiet kids and who are willing for her to be part of the group. Instead, she wants to hang out with the popular kids who draw attention and want to change how my daughter looks. The girls in that group have been giving my daughter clothes and asking her to wear them. I have become angry at her for being sneaky with me about the clothes. I was thinking of calling the moms up and talking to them. Is that ok? I am looking for some advice on how to deal with this.

    • Social status is a very big deal for 11 year old girls, and having the right clothing is key to acceptance in the popular cliques.
      As adults, we find these kinds of demands for conformity to be a bit….repellant. We don’t want our kids to value appearance above honesty, family, and true friendship. But…..11 year old girls are pretty darn superficial. For your daughter, wearing the right clothes is indeed the only way she can be part of the higher status social group in 5th-7th grade. Don’t blame her for wanting to be popular, it is a normal part of being a girl.

      I would really advise against calling the moms to complain about the girls’ behavior.The moms will scold the daughters and tell them to be nice to your daughter. This will lead to your daughter being excluded from the group and she will be angry at you, if she knows you called. Or she will just be hurt at being excluded. You could call the other mopms to ask for clothing advice, for example, where they buy clothes for their girls. In my area, stores like Justice and Holister are popular for girls in this age group. You can buy clothes that are stylish but still veto particular items that are not adequately modest or tasteful. I always need to ask other moms for fashion advice — and even then I have trouble getting the details right. I look at websites from popular stores and see what’s in — and then pick styles that might work for my daughter’s body. For an 11 year old girl, of course you will want to avoid choosing styles that are too mature or sexy or that attract unwanted attention. You can also look at pre-teen TV shows such as i-Carly, Victorious, or Ant Farm to see what the characters are wearing, and discuss the style choices with your daughter. This is a tough age, no doubt about it!

      • I agree with Julie. It’s tough because it’s hard to tell if these girls are trying to actually help your daughter out, or if they are trying to dress her up to pick on her. I wish I could say people don’t do that, but I know it’s true. I would definitely say don’t call the Moms. It’s dangerous territory, that might end up hurting your daughter more than helping her. Being a parent is tough no matter how you cut it, so when kids start moving out of the things that we are comfortable with it gets hard to deal with. Especially when your child might not be aware of social boundaries and body language and all of those oh-so-difficult things that govern pre-teen and teen (and adult!) behavior. I would say encourage her to express herself in a way that both let’s her fit in but also is something you can be ok with.

        Sorry to barge in on your conversation, just offering my two cents! Best of luck!

      • That’s a lot of good advice. Thank you both so much! Like voseharvey mentioned my daughter’s issue relates to not being aware of the boundaries and facial cues.

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