The debate around school uniforms has raged on for years – with some people strictly against them and others arguing that they are helpful. I am not going to focus on the general arguments; instead, I would like to discuss this from the specific perspective of a neurodivergent person with sensory issues.
For many autistic people (and others with sensory processing disorders), school uniforms are a sensory hell. They are made with scratchy material, tags and seams everywhere. They gape and flap and provide all sorts of horrible sensations of touch. They seldom provide the sensation of deep touch that some of us crave. For someone who is already sensitive to stimuli like this, it is nightmarish.
To some people, it may seem irrelevant – a mild discomfort at worst – but I wear very specific clothes and can only handle some materials. School uniforms, unsurprisingly, are not made of these materials. Each time that scratchy skirt flapped and touched me, I felt as if it was grating my skin. The stiff collars touched my neck and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Naturally, I cut the tags off where possible but this did not solve problems such as seams and stitching. Every time I had put on that uniform, I wanted to claw it off – particularly the summer version.
On some days, my sensory threshold is far lower than it normally is – especially during periods of stress. This takes an already problematic situation and makes it far worse. I spend the day in pain and unable to focus.
When school uniforms are bought, they come in one expensive type – the sensory nightmare version. Schools enforce these uniforms and do not accept ‘excuses’ not to wear them. There are no alterations allowed and many schools do not allow the wearing of clothes underneath uniforms to assist with this (although this still is of limited help).
When Covid-19 hit, school uniform rules were abandoned temporarily. We were suddenly allowed to wear normal clothes again. I performed far better when I was not pulling at my outfit the whole day and I was happier staying at school. This highlighted the stark difference and showed that benefits gained from “discipline” whilst wearing a uniform was negated by the fact that I was constantly distressed by it. I was suddenly able to sit down without conscious awareness and hatred of my attire.
Besides the actual uniform, there were several additional rules that made this worse:
Sensory Necklaces and Chewlery: Many schools do not allow “accessories” or “jewelry”. They have outlawed anything that could constitute a fidget – no bracelets to stim with and no sensory chews around your neck. These things are proven to be helpful to autistic children and some of us rely on them to calm down and manage our emotions. When I am overstimulated – I depend on these objects. Essentially, by banning this, they have thrust us into a world of discomfort (as illustrated by the concerns above) and removed an important self-regulation tool – compounding the issue. This point in particular is an important one because it has such an easy solution -allowing sensory tools.
Noise-cancelling devices: Headphones are outlawed in many schools in my country despite the fact that they are proven to improve productivity. For neurodivergent people- this is a particularly pertinent issue. Schools are filled with overwhelming stimuli – especially sounds. The very thought of people screeching in the crowded hallways makes anxiety claw at me -eight months later. My school received a letter from a psychologist requesting headphones. They chose to deny this request. I can only imagine how much better I would have performed if I did not have to spend so much time blocking my ears. It is such a simple accommodation to provide and yet, it is often denied. Allowing noise-cancelling headphones would dramatically improve the lives of neurodivergent people.
School Shoes: As it is, I am uncoordinated. The school shoes we were required to wear made me even more clumsy, resulting in me tripping and falling constantly. I remember a blessed two weeks one winter -during which I took my boots (sensory friendly) and wore them in place of school shoes. No one noticed (they were in a similar style) and I could move far more normally. I tripped less often and I felt like I could actually walk or run unhindered. Unfortunately – on one fateful day – they decided to check our socks and I was caught out and forced to go back to school shoes. In this school – one person with a physical disability was allowed to wear them. I unfortunately have only recently realised the extent of my movement issues. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult I found it to walk in school shoes and how many brands cause blisters.
I once went to a school that had a uniform but allowed any black or white sneakers which significantly helped. My recommendation to schools is to allow a different kind of shoe for those who have differing sensory needs – it can easily form part of a uniform and doesn’t have to be a free pass to wear anything.
School Socks: These are generally made of scratchy materials with many seams. Most schools do nothing to provide a sensory friendly option.
Hair rules: Many schools do not allow short hairstyles for AFAB students. They insist on hair ties which cause sensory issues as well. I was fortunate enough to stay in schools which allowed us to have our hair cut.
The concept behind a uniform as a neurodivergent student is not necessarily bad. The ritual of wearing the same thing each day brought me comfort and if it were friendly from a sensory perspective – I would not have minded. On “civvies” days – I would sometimes be teased for wearing the same clothes – I had a specific outfit that I considered safe for school. Uniforms made me stand out a little bit less which was appreciated. I believe that if schools were to provide alternative forms of clothing – a version of a uniform designed for people like me – they could dramatically improve our experiences.
In some schools, they have already started doing this. It is a helpful trend.
In conclusion – If you are going to enforce a school uniform – there must be an option to adjust it so that it is safe for autistic people.
I am going to write a follow up to this post about sensory friendly clothing in general which may give some ideas.
Thank you for reading!