Industry Watch

Molly Fuller designs functional clothing for kids with autism

By design

Molly Fuller creates fashion with a purpose

By Adriana Smith

Molly Fuller, co-founder with Michelle Tran Maryns of Molly Fuller Design, credits her grandparents with inspiring her to pursue a career in service design. Growing up down the street from them in Cincinnati, Ohio, she was witness from a young age to her grandfather’s struggle to get dressed while in a wheelchair. The everyday act of taking clothes on and off was, for him, a tedious affair. Had his clothing been expressly designed for use in a wheelchair, such an effort could have been easily avoided.

And so, motivated by her grandmother’s staunch belief that clothing should and could be designed better, Fuller decided to go to fashion school to specialize in service design: “I realized I could go into fashion and do something good with it. Instead of making basic t-shirts, I could design clothing that serves a medical purpose,” she says.

At the University of Cincinnati, Fuller enrolled in a paid co-op program in which she alternated every three months between school and design internships at diverse places such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Mayo Clinic. It was during her senior year that the idea for clothing designed for teens with autism emerged. “I was shadowing occupational therapists at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and I realized that there was a huge need for sensory-based clothing, especially for teens with autism,” says Fuller.  

Much of the clothing designed for medical purposes is conspicuous, often made of bright neon spandex that teens feel anxious wearing. Instead of allowing teens with disabilities to fit in with their classmates, it counterproductively draws attention to them.

So Fuller set out to design shirts that teens with autism would want to wear. After surveying teens and their parents to determine which features were essential, Fuller decided to develop a compression shirt that would address sensory needs. “I wanted to provide a form of deep-pressure therapy. With autism, if you’re hyposensitive, your senses are diminished, and you might not be able to feel light touches. So you crave that deep pressure to keep you more grounded and to help you know where you are in space. Compression is a form of deep pressure,” she says.

On the other hand, people with autism may also be hypersensitive and become irritated by a shirt rubbing against their skin. To address this, Fuller’s shirts are extra-soft, tagless and flat-seamed. The stylistic design also serves a therapeutic purpose. The elastic sleeve detail, for example, covertly doubles as a fidget device for someone craving additional tactile input.

After gathering survey data and developing a few different shirt designs, Fuller worked with an autistic teen from Ohio to test them out. He gave her feedback about how it fit, how it made him feel and what the kids at school thought of it. His input allowed her to modify the shirt before testing it with eight more teens. The feedback for the final iteration of the shirt was overwhelmingly positive.

The Ohio teen’s mom reported that it helped calm him and kept him focused at school. And perhaps most significantly, it did so while also making him feel comfortable socially because his classmates thought the shirt was so cool and wanted one for themselves. “You don’t have to have autism to want to wear this shirt,” Fuller says. “The goal is that you wouldn’t be able to tell, just by who’s wearing it, if they have a medical condition.”  

For now, Fuller juggles Molly Fuller Design with her current job as a service designer because the two work in tandem. “I really love what I do in my job as a service designer — it keeps my skills sharp in a way that also helps me with my fashion business because I’m constantly interviewing people and understanding their needs to translate them into what I’m designing,” she says.

Fuller has an entire list of products she wants to work on next: “I’ve gotten a lot of requests for pants, so I’m thinking of doing compression-style pants,” she says. “I’ve also thought of doing a sweatshirt or a blazer, something that someone could wear at different occasions and events. I want to give teens the option to wear something that fits the right attire for that event, but actually feels good and looks good.” 


This story appears in print in our July/August issue. For a complimentary subscription, click here.