The Irish brand designing clothes for children with autism

Seams, tags, textures and fabric weight can irritate little ones with sensory issues

Sully and Juno is a new Irish clothing brand for children which accommodates sensory needs.

Gillian Duggan White, a mother of four, set up the clothing brand with her friend Nina Shelton last September, after struggling to buy clothes online during lockdown to suit her three sons’ unique requirements.

“I always say when you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” says Duggan White.

Seams, tags, textures and fabric weights can cause what Gillian describes as “meltdowns” in some individuals with sensory issues. As a baby her eldest son Logan, now nine, would wriggle around awkwardly and become easily upset after she dressed him.

“When I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, I’d strip him off, looking to see if there was a pin somewhere that was hurting him. He would settle immediately and I eventually realised that the seams on his clothes were the problem.” The solution was to put on his clothes inside out. “People on the street would think we were odd, assuming I didn’t care enough to dress my son properly, but I had to let go of my own pride for his happiness.”

Logan’s younger brothers, Flynn (8) and Sully (6) have similar, but not the same, sensory issues, which Gillian and husband Rob have slowly and patiently discovered and learned to accommodate. “It’s not always easy for an autistic child to explain to their parents what’s wrong. Sully, for instance, is preverbal, so he can’t articulate why he’s upset. It takes a lot of learning to understand three completely different boys and their unique experiences of autism,” says Gillian.

Three successive lockdowns caused fresh challenges. “When I’m buying for the boys, I need to feel the fabric, especially on the inside. I need to know where the tag is located and whether or not it can be cut off easily without damaging the garment – some tags are stitched flat onto the back of the neck – and I also want to know what the tag is made of; for instance soft cotton or scratchy nylon,”Gillian says.

These difficulties coincided with some of Nina’s own. Also a mother of four, Nina was working long hours in a high-stress finance environment (she was considered an essential worker so remained office-based throughout Covid). She was not enjoying her job and she was having to arrange childcare for her kids rather than being present with them.

It was not the life she wanted, and so after one particularly difficult day at work last September, she and Gillian decided to act upon their long-held dream of starting a business together. Nina packed in her job and the two women launched Sully and Juno from an annexe in Gillian’s house, working while the kids were at school, and then again in the evening when the children were in bed, finishing up around midnight each night.

“People with autism don’t always need special clothes, but they do need information,” Gillian tells me. So every garment on the Sully and Juno website has a “sensory profile”, detailing relevant information, including whether the item is made from lightweight, mid- or heavyweight fabric. Gillian’s experience is that children with autism can react very differently to the weight of a garment. “Logan likes his clothes to feel really light, whereas Flynn prefers to be warm and snug.”

At Christmas Gillian’s husband Rob, a graphic designer, created an illustration for their Nollaig Shona jumper, which they made available in both mid- and heavyweight fabrics. “Customers loved it, and some told us it was the first time they’d been able to take a photograph of their kids in matching Christmas jumpers,” she says with obvious delight.

While Nina looks after the accounts, orders and manufacturers, Gillian, a former make-up artist in local theatre, is the creative vision behind the brand. She wanted everything on the website to be unisex. “Boys’ clothes tend to come in grey, blue, brown and maybe green. You don’t usually find pink or bright coloured stripes. At Sully and Juno, I didn’t want anything to be off limits,” she says.

Each item is customisable with a child’s name, and Gillian says she has had as many requests for boys’ names to be printed on pink striped jumpers as girls’. While personalisation brings an enormous cute factor to the garments, the idea was born out of more practical concerns. “Sully likes to run away,” Gillian says. “On one occasion he went missing for 15 minutes and it was the most horrific experience of my life. Luckily two local school teachers saw him and sat with him until I arrived.” For children like Sully, who cannot say their name, the personalisation offers a really important function.

Affordability was also key, and the sweatshirts are priced at €26, T-shirts €14 and leggings €15. “If your child has special needs and you can’t buy from standard high street stores or supermarkets, it can become incredibly expensive for families,” Gillian says. “We wanted our clothes to be accessible to everyone, and at a price point where kids can play in them and have fun in them, without parents having to worry too much about wear and tear.”

Gillian has designed many of the vibrant sweatshirts with a loose, slouchy fit, as some children can become distressed pulling a garment over their heads if it’s too neat a fit. Her own children have informed all of these design decisions, but she says they regularly gift clothes to kids in the boys’ Educate Together school because feedback from non-autistic children is just as valuable. Nina’s son Ruben (9), who does not have autism, but who has a wonderfully unique and eclectic sense of style, has been a terrific help. “I wanted to design clothes that Ruben would love to wear too, because he adores colour and stripes and is very playful with how he dresses.”

The response to the brand has been phenomenal. In September, Gillian and Nina placed a tentative order for 30 sweatshirts from their suppliers. Last month, they ordered 10,000. “We’re still in shock,” says Gillian. “But in Ireland families with autism have been neglected for a long time. I’ve had more help, advice and understanding from the families of autistic children and those with autism themselves than from any professional.” She cites the school playground as the best source of support.

The brand has proved a particular favourite with Irish customers living abroad, who are drawn to the Gaelic phrases printed on the garments. From Sona Sásta and Grá mo Chroí to Rí-Rá agus Ruaille Buaille, these everyday Irish words have become a Sully and Juno signature. A former Gaelscoil pupil, Gillian still speaks Irish to her school friends and has an affection for the language that she wanted the brand to reflect. “To me these phrases sound like poetry, and they look visually beautiful too.” She believes the garments are a great way for Irish people living abroad to connect with other emigrants. “The sweatshirts are a way of telling someone you’re Irish without telling them you’re Irish.”