Last night I just finished making a cardigan for myself that I am utterly delighted with. I’m wearing it right now, and quite in love with my crochet skills as they have enabled me to solve a problem that was causing me a lot of stress and upset.
In this cardigan I needed to make something that was both light and heavy at the same time. Its been so warm recently. (It is the middle of July after all!) Temperature seems to be swinging between lows of 20c and highs of 30c. We have enough grey grizzly chilly foggy days in London. The short summer should be a time for tee shorts and shorts or floaty summer dresses. So who would wear thick heavy winter dressing-gowns? I would! Its an autism thing. And as the temperature increases, it becomes a more and more upsetting autism thing as I just want an need to cool down. But I also want and need the sense of ‘heavy’ in my clothing, along with ‘comfort’. So putting on the soft thick cotton dressing gowns I always wear indoors becomes a driving urge.
And that’s where this new cardigan comes in. Made from a fairly thick cotton yarn it feels quite heavy. In fact, its 635 grammes which is about average for a cardigan in a size medium. But the long draggy stitches and baggy size give it a sense of drag from the shoulders which give it that heavy-comforting-something-to-wrap-yourself-up-in feeling.
On the other hand, the lacy panels, loose tension and large open stitches make it as much open space as fabric and the cooling absorbent cotton works well to create a garment perfect for the hot weather which actively helps me cool down not heat up.
What are ‘sensory issues’?
Sensory issues affect neurodiverse people and can be considered a component part – or even a defining feature – of autism and dyspraxia, but can be present with other related diagnosis such as ADHD or dyslexia. Recently I also discovered that I had a mild heart rhythm abnormality known as Long Q T syndrome. To my surprise when reading up on this, I discovered that sensory issues and difficulty managing sensory over-stimulation can be an aspect of some of the sub-types of these cardiac conditions as well. Up to then I had always assumed it was a feature of neurodiversity only.
In short, its something that can affect quite a number of people, in many ways.
To understand sensory issues, its helpful to first understand what a typical person without sensory issues does. A typical person has an ability to select the sensory stimulation they pay attention to once they have had a chance to get used to it.
Imagine a person who moves to a new house near something noisy. A waterfall. A busy road. The first night they get no sleep, as the noise keeps them awake all night. And maybe the next night, and the one after that. But soon enough they are tired enough and they start to sleep through the noise. Then they begin the process of getting used to it. In psychology this is called ‘habituation’. 6 months later they hardly notice the noise at all, but one night away from home, they complain that it was hard to sleep as it was too quiet. People do this across all their senses. Hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell, and the ones we often forget about – balance and direction too. You can watch habituation at work with the sense of balance as people new to sailing find their sea-legs, and spot the person who struggles most. The chances are, there is some aspect of neurodiversity there. Or something else triggering a difficulty with habituation to this sensory stimulation.
For some people habituation happens only very slowly, or not at all. When that is the case, all noise, all sight, all physical feeling comes in equally strongly all the time.
An example of how this affects me with sound is a lifelong difficulty in places where more than 1 person is talking. If you sit me in a coffee shop with a friend, and expect me to chat, while people at tables around us are also chatting, I am always as fully aware of everyone else’s conversation as I am of my own. I’m in my 40’s, this had happened all my life, and still often I’m surprised at other peoples lack of awareness of their surroundings. I’ll be leaving a coffee shop, and say to the person I was with ‘gosh, that woman at the next table really just needs to split up with her boyfriend!’ – and my friend will look at me blankly. And I will be wondering, yet again, how they could not have been aware, and indeed quite stressed by, the loud difficult conversation going on right beside us. A neurotypical person can tune out the voices they don’t want to listen to, and only focus on the ones they do. A person with sensory issues can’t. Bad enough in a coffee shop, but horrific in a classroom when people are expected to work in groups. So it can make life quite difficult. But it can also make us more observant and connected to our surroundings as well. People who work as first responders for example are people I have known, and sometimes wondered to myself ‘gosh, do you know you are a bit aspie?’ but also seen them use these traits of being able to ignore nothing, and fully focus on all the potential hazards in a situation to very positive effect.
Food issues are notoriously difficult to deal with when you are constantly bombarded by all the sensory information, and its very common for people with sensory issues to develop fears of trying new foods, restrictive eating patterns and strict brand loyalty. For example, I will only eat one brand of baked beans. And only if I have heated them myself. Because if they taste wrong, or the bean isn’t the same temperature as sauce I can become inordinately, irrationally upset. But that’s a huge issue in its own right. I could say a lot about how difficult it can be, and also the life skills I’ve picked up along the way to learn to deal with it and eat a varied diet.
Touch and skin sensations are what are most relevant to clothing though. Neurodiverse people are all unique, no two of us are the same, but some common patterns are there. On the one hand, there is the phenomenon of high pain tolerance, coupled with a total inability to manage discomfort. Its an irony that leaves typical people scratching their heads in wonder. They look at us and think ‘you walked down the mountain after your fall, and walked into A&E on a broken leg with hardly a word of complaint, and now you are having a tantrum on the floor like a toddler because there is a label on your clothes digging in to you? What is your deal?‘ Welcome to the wonderful world of neurodiversity! And yes, needing to wear a pair of nylon tights which really must have been invented by the devil, truly is more distressing to me than a clear pain I can understand such as a sprained wrist.
That brings us to what neurodiverse people can do to manage this constant overwhelm of feeling every inch of their skin in their clothing, hearing every noise, being aware of every crack in the pavement. We can retreat fully from it by shutting down.
You can demand I wear nylon tights if you must, but don’t expect me to make conversation with you when I’m wearing them, because the only way I can pull back from all that feeling of discomfort on my legs all day, is to pull back from everything. This is shut-down, where everything is switched off. Its disastrous for getting by in life.
Alternatively, comforting senses can be used to support, comfort and distract. This is where neurodiverse people can become very sensory seeking. The presence of comforting colours, textures, tastes, smells, sounds, balance and movement can all become tools for channeling awareness. Many neurodiverse people seek out the sensations they find positive and calming. It becomes a lifeline to coping, and not finding a shut-down or a melt-down descending even when other sensations are there and overwhelming.
For me, that’s where my dressing gowns come in. I’ve become far worse with this as I have become older, with is also a common experience may autistic women describe, that age makes sensory issues slowly a little tiny bit more dominant each year
So often I have tried to go out for a whole day, but half way through just give up and go home so I can put my fleecy jammies and dressing gown on and feel comfortable.
And a large part of it is the sense of weight, which is also a very common sense sought out my neurodiverse people. That’s why weighted blankets were invented, but some of us also like it in our clothes.
And that’s why I can make myself so upset in very hot weather. Putting on a ridiculous winter dressing-gown, feeling ill from the heat, taking it off, putting it back on again within minutes. Its daft, and I had to solve this problem.
And so I made my cardigan. And so far, its working! Hooray! I’m comfortable, I don’t feel the urge to find a dressing gown, I’m not too hot – or at least, I’m no hotter than I would be if I wasn’t wearing it.
I used the pattern for the ‘Brunch Cardigan’ because I had been looking for an excuse to finally figure out the hexagon construction technique. I knew it cropped up in patterns, and every time I crocheted a hexagon shape I would sit looking at it, and folding it, and muttering to myself that there was no way that could create a cardigan. So, to give myself relief from THAT annoyance, I decided to just follow a pattern, and solve that mystery.
And what an easy mystery it was. The hexagons are not worked flat like an afghan square, they are worked wider, and that way they do fold into a perfect cardigan shape. It made for a quick easy pattern I was able to create in a couple of days. I tweaked the pattern, used a very different yarn, and altered the lacy panels to be v-stitches with back and front post trebbles to create lots of weight and drag.
Next up, I have a plan to try out a design based on a top-down construction, with chevrons alternating with flower stitches, which I think will give even more weight for a cardigan combined with open lacyiness. If it works I might even get the pattern written up and published on ravelry, although the pace I work, and the amount of other projects I have on the go, that’s unlikely to be before next summer