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A softer, gentler approach to clothes for sensitive kids

Back-to-school clothes shopping can be a headache. But for Jordan Fankhanel of Edmonton, Alta., it's irritating from head to toe.

That's because Jordan, 10, has sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition that's not clinically recognized as its own diagnosis but manifests as a hypersensitivity to certain textures.

Regardless of the weather, Jordan can only tolerate wearing soft, short-sleeved T-shirts and prefers Adidas pull-on athletic pants that don't have buttons or zippers that dig in. He always wears his cotton socks inside out and loathes shirts and jackets that cover his arms.

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His mother, Lori Fankhanel, typically brings home heaps of different clothing for him to try on, in the hope that he'll find something that doesn't scratch his skin.

"I'd say that, out of 100 per cent of the clothing that we buy, 98 goes back," says Fankhanel, who is also founder and president of SPD Canada. "So once you find that two per cent, you go back and you buy every colour you possibly can."

These days, however, Fankhanel may find that she and Jordan have a little more choice: Thanks to a small but increasing number of specialty companies, including Soft Clothing, Teres Kids and sock brand SmartKnitKIDS, children with sensitivities related to sensory processing disorder, autism and attention deficit disorder are being catered to in greater numbers and with greater (and handsomer) clothing options.

After close to three years of market research and testing, Soft Clothing, which is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., began shipping its first orders early this year.

Founder Jessica Ralli, a special educator, discovered an untapped demand for specialty clothing while working with autistic children in New York public schools.

While conducting research online, "I started reading all these posts from frustrated parents," she says. "Parents were saying things like 'L.L. Bean makes great T-shirts with no tags, but you have to sew down the seams' or 'Gap just come out with a great pair of chinos; they actually have an elastic waist.'"

Ralli decided that it was time for a company to address these design demands: Her company creates ultra-soft flat-seam and tagless garments, using cotton that's bio-washed to remove microscopic, porcupine-like fibres that stick out. The cotton is also coloured with gentler vegetable dyes, as synthetic dyes can sometimes have a plastic feel, she says.

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Soft's shirts have a slightly wider neckline, so they sit below the collar bone and won't trigger a choking sensation. And their sleeves are cut either shorter or longer than wrist-length to ensure they don't irritate sensitive wrists.

Design-wise, Ralli says, her garments look no different than regular children's clothes and can be worn by any kid.

"We didn't want it to be clinical or therapeutic-looking," she says. "We wanted the clothes to be trendy and to look like regular clothes that you buy off the rack.

Alex Merlino, co-founder of Santa Fe, N.M.-based Teres Kids, says parents often buy her company's clothes without even realizing they're targeted to the sensory market. Seams on Teres Kids clothing are on the outside so they don't touch the skin; the garments also have raw edges, so there are no seams at the cuffs or on the edges of the skirts.

Socks by SmartKnitKIDS, manufactured by U.S. company Knit-Rite, are also seamless and designed with children with sensory issues in mind.

All three companies accept online orders and ship to Canada.

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Kimberly Ortiz, whose seven-year-old son Oscar has sensory issues, says she's a huge fan of Soft Clothing. The Olympia, Wash. resident says that mainstream clothing companies are also making shopping easier for parents like her these days. By focusing on creating more comfortable children's clothing and forgoing tags, she notes, manufacturers for retailers like JCPenney and Wal-Mart now carry items that Oscar can actually wear.

Such details may be small, but they represent the difference between an upset child and a happy one for parents like Ortiz.

"I think that's a huge deal," she says.

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