Dressed to the nines: how one B.C. family is addressing autism

Chilliwack family test-trying CalmWear: a line of clothing to suppress sensory processing disorders

Nestled behind Chilliwack’s downtown core is a typical A-framed house: its walkway has been shovelled, the swings in the back are covered in snow, and from the cacophony of sounds coming from inside—kids laughing, footsteps down stairs, and maybe even a cat’s meow—it’s obviously a family home.

Chelsea Miller and Travis Tolmie, who’ve been together for five years, share the home with their two daughters, Scarlett and Annabella, who are anything but typical. With wild blonde hair and bright, lively eyes, the girls—who are Irish twins—are dressed in tanktops with matching logos in the middle of the back that reads CalmWear.

Annabella and Scarlett Tomlie have both benefited from wearing CalmWear.<

“Before CalmWear, we’d start our day with multiple fits,” says Miller as she watches Annabella play with an Everest Crazy Fort just built for her by her dad. “And with two, it could last hours. What you’re seeing right now—her being calm—this would never have happened before.”

Scarlett, Miller’s four-year-old daughter, was diagnosed last summer as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and they’re now in the same process for three-year-old Annabella.

“We’ve already been told by three pediatricians (that she has Autism),” Miller says. “We’re just waiting for the official diagnosis, which should be next week.”

Autism isn’t a disease, or one specific disorder, but rather an array of conditions characterized by challenges in areas like social interactions, appropriate behavioural responses, and communication. And while raising young children does come with its own set of challenges, parenting a child with special needs can be a bit like running in the dark with hurdles appearing randomly out of nowhere.

READ MORE: Understanding autism from the inside out

“We were doing everything to find something that worked for the girls,” explained Miller. As a young family with a limited income, resources for the girls were extremely hard to come by before Scarlett received her official diagnosis, which opened up thousands of dollars in pre-educational funding from the federal government.

Before that, they’d tried fish oils and changing their diet to exclude anything that wasn’t considered to be “clean eating,” but they found it very difficult and expensive. “Can you imagine how hard it is to get girls who only eat chicken nuggets to eat non-processed, gluten-free, dairy-free food?” exclaims Miller.

But nothing Tolmie and Miller were doing was seeming to have a lasting impact: the girls were regularly throwing fits that included bouts of self-harm: throwing themselves into furniture, or biting their hands and fingers until blood was drawn.

SPD: When multi-sensory integration is not properly processed to provide appropriate responses to the demands of the environment.

“It got to the point that I started filming the girls’ outbursts to protect ourselves,” says Miller. “The hospital told us Child Protective Services would have to be involved if we showed up at the ER with either of our girls one more time.”

Then last fall, through six degrees of separation, Miller was contacted by Connie Manning, the North American spokeswoman for CalmWear. Manning had issued an internal memo within looking for possible test families for CalmWear in the Canadian market and was given Miller’s information by mutual acquaintance who knew of the family’s struggles.

After speaking with Miller, Manning offered the family a spot in the Canadian trial of CalmWear, giving the girls two singlets and shorts each, plus another each for Miller and Tomlie. And while there are almost 40 test-families across the country, Miller and her family are part of the core group of families, and the only test-family in the Fraser Valley.

READ MORE: The long haul to raise awareness about autism

Miller says her initial conversation with Manning was very touching and they both ended up crying by the end. “(Travis and I) were at our wits’ end, and then Connie offered us a spot in the Canadian test-trial. We were willing to try anything by that point,” says Miller, adding they’d received an eviction threat shortly before that due to the girls’ emotional outbursts disrupting the daily lives of neighbours.

“CalmWear has changed our lives,” says Miller matter-of-factly. “I’m not even joking.”

Based on Temple Grandin’s groundbreaking research, CalmWear was designed for people with sensory processing disorders (SPD) caused by conditions such as autism. For years, occupational therapists have noted how the human nervous system responds to touch: a light touch, such a tickle, alerts the nervous system, whereas deep pressure, like hugs, produces a relaxing, calming effect.

CalmWear’s website explains their clothing works by providing “the perfect dose of sensory input to help calm, soothe and support self-regulation.” Essentially, CalmWear products deep pressure all day long, allowing the wearer to focus on life, instead of the confusion caused by their SPD.

Miller explains how she and her husband had looked into weighted blankets for the girls, but the cost and logistics of them were counterproductive: the moment either of the girls experienced a growth spurt, the blankets would be useless, as they need to be 10 per cent of one’s body mass to be useful.

“Weighted blankets are limited to 20 minutes a day of use,” explains Manning. “And they only offer an hour of relief afterwards. CalmWear can be worn always, it’s unassuming, and offers 24 hours of help.”

When asked to list the biggest changes witnessed in the girls’ behaviour, both Miller and Tomlie admit they have difficulty sticking to just one.

“There’s been so many,” Tomlie says. “Annabella is way happier, and is showing an interest in potty training. Before she couldn’t care less.”

But perhaps one of the biggest improvements would be Scarlett’s progress in verbal communication: moving from saying the odd word to saying full sentences and singing. “It’s been so amazing,” says Miller, beaming.

“And imaginary play, that’s huge!” Miller adds. “CalmWear has given us a light at the end of the tunnel. Now we’re not going to the lengths we were.”

Looking at her girls playing peacefully in the middle of the living room, Miller nods as though she’s giving CalmWear her final approval. “It’s helping to erase the differences between ‘normal’ and autistic,” she says. “Their futures seem brighter now.”

For more information on CalmWear, please visit their website: www.calmwear.net.

@SarahGawdin
Sarah.Gawdin@theprogress.com

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