Designing Clothes for Kids with Sensory Issues

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By Melissa Newcomb

As part of her sorority’s philanthropic work, Julia DeNey ’20 volunteered at a preschool for children who have autism. From their parents she learned that, due to challenges with sensory input, some kids have difficulty wearing certain kinds of clothing.

Those conversations inspired DeNey—then a fashion design major in Human Ecology—to devote a research paper to the clothing options available for children who have sensory issues.

“The conclusion to my essay was: there’s nothing,” DeNey recalls. “That paper sparked it all.”

Julia DeNey with her clothing designs

Today, DeNey runs Sense-ational You, an online brand specializing in clothing and accessories that address special sensory needs.

Some items reduce light or sound, while others compress the body or (in the case of a squishable hair scrunchie that doubles as a fidget toy) offer a way to block out other input.

“Imagine you are at a rock concert, with loud music and bright lights—and then somebody makes you do physics,” says DeNey, whose brand boasts more than 30,000 followers on Instagram.

Julia DeNey inspects a dress on a hanger that she is in the process of designing.
Creating a dress her senior year.

“It’s overstimulating, and you’re not going to be able to focus. That’s what a classroom can feel like for a kid that has sensory needs.”

DeNey was a senior on the Hill when she designed the prototype for her first product.

A sweatshirt, its hood features a flip-down eye mask and weighted vinyl material around the ears that, she says, can block 10–30 decibels of high-frequency sound.

(The hoodie, priced at $50–70, is currently the only item also offered in adult sizes.)

The same year, DeNey designed the forerunner of another of Sense-ational You’s products: a “compression” shirt ($35) whose adjustable lining can be tightened around the wearer—which, she notes, can have a calming effect on the nervous system by replicating the feeling of a hug.

DeNey's brand boasts more than 30,000 followers on Instagram.

DeNey debuted her sensory-friendly designs—modeled by some of the kids who’d inspired them—during the annual Cornell Fashion Collective Runway Show, which is held in Barton Hall each spring.

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Her project was overseen by her mentor, Heeju Park, an associate professor of human centered design.

Julia DeNey and six child models walk on the runway.
On the runway in Barton with her youthful models.

Park, who directs Human Ecology’s Performance Apparel Design Lab, contributed his own perspective, having a young relative with autism.

Says Park: “Julia has the skills to create this positive impact on people’s lives—not only the kids, but their families too.”

Julia has the skills to create this positive impact on people’s lives—not only the kids, but their families too.”

Prof. Heeju Park

After graduation, DeNey took a job as a special education paraprofessional and worked on her clothing brand part time.

Sometimes, she recalls, students would ask her to cut the tags out of their shirts because they were uncomfortable—a reminder that her tagless clothing and mindful designs could aid many more children if the brand grew.

“Think of an annoying clothing tag on the back of a sweater that cuts into your neck,” she explains. “That can be bothersome—but to them it is actually painful.”

In 2023, DeNey left her teaching job to pursue Sense-ational You full time.

In addition to shirts and hoodies, the site also offers sweatpants with elastic waistbands, avoiding buttons or zippers that could be irritating.

(Plus, she notes, the simple designs allow kids who have challenges with fine motor skills to dress themselves.)

A child wears a compression shirt while playing in a ball pit with bubbles
The compression shirt can be tightened to simulate a hug.

While her company is still in its early days, DeNey’s products have gotten raves from some autism-related social media sites.

“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this company not only knows what they’re doing but genuinely cares about the comfort and well-being of its customers,” blogged the mom of a nonverbal autistic five-year-old.

“Having put so much love and thought into every step of the process, Sense-ational You truly is a dream come true to the community they serve.”

(All images provided.)

Published April 25, 2024


  1. rowena perry

    love this idea

  2. Laura Badmaev, Class of 2003

    Thank you for your innovation in this space! I would love to see your company expand to other product lines for children who have orthotics, wheelchairs, and medical devices/needs (e.g. urostomy bags). We appreciate your efforts to make clothing more inclusive for our children and to spread awareness about their needs!

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