Meta Auden is used to dropping everything and trying something brand new. After she became a mother at the age of 36, she earned a degree in politics in her 40s, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in her 50s, and then went on to become an entrepreneur. And during all that, she and her husband have helped more than 20 foster children. In her 60s now, Auden is running a successful clothing business for people on the autism spectrum.
Auden was inspired to start her own business, despite having no experience whatsoever, by her adopted daughter. Now 18-year-old Kirsty joined the family when she was just two years old as a foster child. She’d been passed from foster family to foster family since her birth, because her fetal alcohol syndrome and what would later be diagnosed as autism made her difficult to handle. But Auden, her husband, John, and their then 9-year-old son fell in love with Kirsty and decided to keep her.
“I got a call two weeks before Christmas from social services saying they had a wee girl aged two for us and so Kirsty arrived the week before Christmas,” says Auden. “We had no plans to adopt, but we couldn’t let her go. I remember buying her a red velvet dress for Christmas Day and I had to buy one for a child aged 6-9 months because she was so tiny and malnourished.”
Auden remembers Kirsty being very clingy, which allowed Auden and John to spend extra time working with her to get her behavioral and mental problems under control.
“We knew she had issues and later discovered she is also autistic, but it just made us love her all the more.”
Auden loves shopping for clothes with her daughter, who is now 18, but was frustrated when Kirsty would leave half her wardrobe unworn in the closet. She could never seem to find anything comfortable to wear, and there didn’t seem to be anything Auden could do about it.
“When it came to Kirsty, I was a bit of a shopaholic as I loved buying clothes for her, but she wouldn’t have worn anything I bought,” says Auden. “I knew she had sensory issues around noise, but never about anything else. We had to cut labels off, but I just put that down to something many people did.”
It wasn’t until Auden was at a meeting with a group of other parents of children on the spectrum that someone mentioned the autism-related sensory issues surrounding clothing, and a lightbulb went on in her head. She realized that the fabric, stitching, and labels on many articles of clothing were bothering not just Kirsty but lots of other kids on the spectrum as well, and the discomfort was even leading to behavioral issues in many cases.
“I went home and opened Kirsty’s wardrobe and asked her to give me everything that she would never wear. There was not a lot left.”
Not satisfied with combing the racks for clothing that wouldn’t irritate her daughter, Auden decided to create Spectra Sensory Clothing.
“The challenge in designing the clothes was in putting in the changes that needed to be made, while also making the school shirt and trousers look the same as any other and we have managed that. It took a while, but we did get it eventually.”
Auden started with a school uniform line, removing or adapting things like tags, buttons, zippers, and seams to be softer and less irritating. She designed them using 100 percent cotton so they would be soft, even in the collars, and she only uses three real buttons down the front (the other buttons are fake) so dressing and undressing is easy. The tags are located in the pocket instead of at the neck so they can’t irritate the skin
Then Auden added a t-shirt line and a set of Christmas jumpers, as well as a weighted padded vest. Most recently, she’s been working with no-tie shoelaces and seamless socks, which are quickly becoming a best-seller.
Now Auden has a growing list of happy clients all across the UK. Her clothing has improved the quality of life for many families and even earned her two Eastside Awards for best innovation and best start-up in the east Belfast area.
Auden is always open to new clothing ideas, but she’s also limited on what she can produce without outside funding. “Last year, we were asked for boy’s underwear and now I am trying to develop that,” she says. “It takes time and money to develop new items for the range and we would love to keep adding new items, but we simply don’t have the funding.”
However, Auden isn’t one to quit trying. “The way I see it, I am selling an answer to a problem, and if someone rings me up looking for something in particular, I will go out of my way to find it,” she says.
Thank you, Meta, for your dedication to this little-known but very important issue that plagues the autism community. Your work will make life easier for autism families for generations to come!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?