The Irish brand that designs clothes for children with autism
Sally and Juno is a new Irish children’s clothing brand that caters to sensory needs.
Mother-of-four Gillian Duggan White set up the clothing brand with friend Nina Shelton last September after struggling to shop for clothes online during lockdown to meet the unique needs of her three sons.
“I always say when you know an autistic person, you know an autistic person,” says Duggan White.
The seams, labels, textures and weight of fabrics can cause what Gillian describes as “melts” in some people with sensory issues. As a baby, his eldest son Logan, now nine, squirmed awkwardly and easily got upset after he was dressed.
“When I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, I would undress him, looking to see if there was a pin somewhere hurting him. He calmed down immediately and eventually I realized the seams in his clothes were the problem. The solution was to put his clothes inside out. “People on the street would think we were weird, assuming I didn’t care enough to dress my son properly, but I had to give up my own pride for his happiness.”
Logan’s younger brothers Flynn (8) and Sully (6) have similar, but not the same, sensory issues that Gillian and her husband Rob slowly and patiently discovered and learned to deal with. “It’s not always easy for an autistic child to explain to their parents what’s wrong. Sully, for example, is preverbal, so he can’t explain why he’s upset. It takes a lot of learning to understand three completely different boys and their unique experiences with autism,” says Gillian.
Three successive closures created new challenges. “When shopping for boys, I need to feel the fabric, especially on the inside. I need to know where the tag is and whether or not it can be cut easily without damaging the garment – some tags are sewn flat on the back of the neck – and I also want to know what the label ; for example soft cotton or rough nylon,” says Gillian.
These difficulties coincided with some of Nina’s. Also a mother of four, Nina worked long hours in a very stressful financial environment (she was considered an essential worker and therefore remained in the office throughout Covid). She didn’t like her job and she had to arrange childcare rather than being present with them.
It wasn’t the life she wanted, and so after a particularly tough day at work last September, she and Gillian decided to pursue their long-held dream of starting a business together. Nina did her job and the two women kicked off Sully and Juno from an annex of Gillian’s house, working while the kids were in school, then again in the evenings when the kids were in bed, finishing 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 Sully and Juno’s website has a “sensory profile,” detailing relevant information, including whether the item is made from light, medium, or heavyweight fabric. Gillian’s experience is that children with autism can react very differently to the weight of clothing. “Logan likes his clothes to be really light, while Flynn prefers to be warm and comfortable.”
Over Christmas, Gillian’s husband Rob, a graphic designer, created an illustration for their Nollaig Shona sweater, which they offered in medium and heavyweight fabrics. “Customers loved it, and some told us it was the first time they’d been able to take a picture of their kids wearing matching Christmas sweaters,” she says with obvious delight.
While Nina takes care of accounts, orders and manufacturers, Gillian, a former local theater makeup artist, 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 stripes or bright colors. At Sully and Juno, I didn’t want anything banned,” she says.
Each item is customizable with a child’s name, and Gillian says she’s had as many requests to have boys’ names printed on pink striped sweaters as girls. While personalization brings a huge cute factor to clothing, the idea was born out of more practical concerns. “Sully likes to run away,” says Gillian. “On one occasion he disappeared for 15 minutes and it was the most horrible experience of my life. Luckily two teachers from the local school saw him and sat with him until I arrived. kids like Sully, who can’t say their name, personalization offers a really important function.
Affordability was key too, and sweatshirts are priced at €26, t-shirts €14 and leggings €15. “If your child has special needs and you can’t buy from department stores or standard supermarkets, it can get extremely expensive for families,” says Gillian. “We wanted our clothes to be accessible to everyone and at a price where children could play and have fun without parents having to worry too much about wear and tear.”
Gillian has designed many brightly colored sweatshirts with a loose, loose fit, as some children may become distressed by pulling a garment over their head if the fit is too tight. Her own children informed all of these design decisions, but she says they regularly donate clothes to children at the Educate Together Boys’ School because feedback from non-autistic children is just as valuable. Nina’s son, Ruben (9), who is not autistic but has a wonderfully unique and eclectic sense of style, was a huge help. “I wanted to create clothes that Ruben would like to wear too, because he loves color and stripes and is very playful with the way he dresses.”
The response to the brand has been phenomenal. In September, Gillian and Nina placed a provisional order for 30 sweatshirts with their suppliers. Last month, they ordered 10,000. “We’re still in shock,” says Gillian. “But in Ireland, families with autism have long been neglected. I have received more help, guidance and understanding from families of autistic children and autistic people themselves than from any professional. She cites the playground as the best source of support.
The brand has proven particularly popular with Irish customers living abroad, who are drawn to the Gaelic phrases printed on the clothing. 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 student of Gaelscoil, Gillian still speaks Irish to her classmates and has an affection for the language she wanted the brand to reflect. “To me, these sentences sound like poetry, and they’re also visually beautiful.” She thinks the clothes are a great way for Irish people living abroad to connect with other emigrants. “Sweatshirts are a way to tell someone you’re Irish without telling them you’re Irish.”