Remember the rule for school days: only one accessory, so you can choose either the bow tie or the beanie, Aidan.”
We didn’t have your typical four-year-old. When other children were listening to Raffi or the Wiggles, Aidan was a veritable expert on the catalogs of the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Beatles, and Queen. When most preschoolers were learning about shapes, colors, and the ABCs, Aidan was voraciously reading about paleontology, the history of computers, and his favorite obsession—the table of elements. As other little boys threw on their favorite super hero t-shirts or brightly colored Gymboree ensembles dotted with dinosaurs and firetrucks, Aidan was insistent on a wardrobe that looked like it had been plucked from a Portland hipster.
Aidan lived in a world of his own creation, entirely unaware of the ways he was so different from his peers. In truth, it’s because Aidan was unable to identify that he had a peer group at all. Aidan is deeply social and loving, and Aidan is also autistic.
Fighting Unfriendly Fashion
I sobbed tears of joy the first time Aidan begged me to buy him a pack of Pokémon cards, announcing “but all my friends at school have them!” That’s the funny thing about parenting a child with autism—we have very different milestones. The first time I had that child in the store, the one who’s nagging their parent to buy them the latest fad is so they can be just like everyone else? Many parents feel defeated. I was realizing a hard won victory.
Aidan was seven and was showing more and more signs that he was learning how to create connection. We had never pushed him to give up the things that made him so unique, but somehow his interests had naturally started to overlap in more places with the rest of his peers. There was Star Wars, and Minecraft, and now apparently Pokémon as well. He had always carried the desire to connect; he just needed the right bridges to finally meet his peers.
His tastes in fashion also began to shift. He was still very opinionated about his clothing, but suddenly there was a newfound awareness of what his peers would find cool. The caveat was that as Aidan’s desire to connect had grown, so had some of the challenges that made him unique.
Aidan’s sensory issues created a long list of rules for his clothing, and although there were growing options for autism friendly clothing online, they were often pricey and the designs were limited and childish. We were stuck between the challenge of trying to encourage this new found connection to his peers while still trying to meet his extensive sensory needs. I can’t tell you how many times Aidan wore two shirts, a sensory friendly option against his skin with a cooler more stylish choice on the outside. When we found the rare jeans he could tolerate, we would buy up four or five pairs, anything to lessen this choice between looking good and feeling good.
Lucky Breaks in the Target Aisle?
We were shopping at Target one day, a store we frequented often because they didn’t play music over their PA, making it far less overwhelming for Aidan’s senses. I noticed a large sticker affixed to a pair of boys jeans that said “feels like sweatpants inside!” The jeans looked entirely typical, a nice dark wash with a hip skinny cut, and they seemed well structured and stiff enough to hold up to the inevitable wear and tear. These were the exact style Aidan always wanted to be able to wear, and yet also the ones that usually caused him the most discomfort. Somehow these magical jeans had managed to crack the code, because while they looked tailored and structured on the outside, inside they truly did feel like sweats. We bought up nearly half a dozen pairs and made a note to send all our other autism friends to Target to check these out.
Just a few feet away Aidan had noticed a shirt with a cool skateboarder vibe, something I could imagine even a fourteen-year-old wearing confidently, and to my surprise the shirt was entirely tagless. The material was softer than I was used to finding on more affordable tops, and I noticed right away that the seams inside were nearly flat—a hallmark of sensory friendly clothing.
I would expect this from an autism friendly line of items, but this was just a regular shirt from their main collection. I chalked it up to incredible luck on our part.
Future trips to Target revealed more lucky finds. There was a pair of stylish tie up shoes with a hidden zipper on the side, allowing us to double knot Aidan’s shoes for him once then let him get them on and off independently with the zipper. I was ecstatic to find an alternative to traditional lace up shoes in Aidan’s size without having to special order something online. Aidan was just thrilled he didn’t have to wear velcro like his little brother.
Over time we noticed that a majority of the shirts were tagless now, and the materials were some of the softest around. In the toy section we had discovered fidget cubes and sensory bracelets, items we had usually sourced from special therapy tool suppliers. But why was it always at Target that we stumbled on these finds?
Choosing Inclusion for All the Right Reasons
A little research revealed that none of this was coincidence.
In 2014, a woman named Caroline Wanga went from her position as a senior group manager of Target’s human resources to a new position they titled Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Her official title today is Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer and Vice President of Human Resources. Under Caroline’s direction, Target had begun to systematically rethink the way their stores approached diversity. They designed a three-hour workshop to address the conscious and unconscious biases that can stand in the way of inclusion, one that CEO Brian Cornell and all of Target’s top executives went through themselves. They took radical steps to prioritize the needs of often marginalized communities, quietly doing the work of diversity all throughout its stores.
The choice to make way for the marginalized made a way for a woman named Stacey Monsen, who was raising a seven-year-old daughter with autism and who is also a designer for them, to share her experiences. Stacey in turn organized opportunities to listen to the special needs community at large, bringing in both families affected by disability and organizations that serve them well. The team took their increased understanding of the needs of these communities and implemented them into thoughtful design choices and the inclusion of more adaptive apparel.
It didn’t stop with careful listening. Target quietly added hidden design elements, like adding a slightly higher rise and wider hip to their leggings to accommodate diapers for larger children with special needs. They designed items that offer non-traditional methods for taking them on and off independently, much like Aidan’s new zipper shoes.
Most importantly though, they chose to integrate these design choices directly into their main clothing line, Cat & Jack, rather than create a specialized line of items specifically for the disabled. Target understood something that so many other brands have missed: the power of choosing real inclusivity instead of adding separate accommodations only for those who require them. For children like Aidan, the work of inclusion has been hard won, so choices that connect him to his peers rather than further singling him out as unique are especially life giving.
I can see the fruits of Target’s efforts to seek inclusion for the disabled all over its stores now. I see it in the choice not to play music over their PA system. I see it in the way they recognized that autistic children grow up to become autistic adults, and so the t-shirts I’m buying in the women’s department now have the same tagless designs and extra soft fabrics I loved in the Cat & Jack brand. I see it in the way that when Target recently remodeled to feel more like a boutique than a Walmart. They recognized that the more aesthetically pleasing layouts were also a lot less pragmatic, meaning they could be more frustrating for its customers with disabilities like autism. So when the stores were remodeled, Target added a new dimension to its guest services area in the front of the store, creating a system by which customers can order their items online and pick them up on the same day. I can see it most though in the decision to institute each of these changes quietly and without any fanfare. Target understood how to do the right thing for the right thing’s sake, and has avoided using disabled people as a prop to try to win positive PR.
The Ecclesiology of Target
When I wander the aisles of Target these days, I can’t help but think about how much the church could learn from its example. I imagine what it would be like to peruse the staff list of a local church and see “Pastor of Diversity and Inclusion.”
Imagine a church with such a firm commitment to diversity that it would create a position explicitly to focus on how to keep inclusion at the forefront of its goals. Imagine a church setting up listening meetings with disabled members or community groups serving marginalized populations, asking them for insights into where they might be getting it wrong, and how best to change things going forward. Imagine a church where it wasn’t good enough to offer separate programs for people with specialized needs, but one consistently seeking out ways to prioritize inclusivity instead. A church that didn’t suggest a room with a video stream as the alternative for special needs families, but actively sought out ways to make their services more sensory friendly and accessible. Imagine a body of Christ that recognized that inclusion wasn’t just a gift to people like Aidan, but that the body is strengthened and edified by the unique perspectives that Aidan brings.
I long for the day when the church will treat intersectionality less like a political buzzword and more like the blueprint for a more accurate representation of the image of God we all carry. I long for a church more like Target.