Daughter who inspired Belfast mother to start clothing firm changing lives of children with autism
When Belfast woman Meta Auden's daughter was growing up, she realised that little Kirsty had sensory issues with clothes. She tells Stephanie Bell how she decided to set up her own business to help others
A big-hearted Belfast mum has developed a range of clothing for children with autism after watching her own daughter struggle to find something comfortable to wear.
Meta Auden loved shopping for fashion for her teenage daughter, Kirsty (18), but realised something was wrong when most of her lovely new clothes remained hidden in her wardrobe.
It was just a few years ago while at a meeting with parents of autistic children that Meta had a lightbulb moment when she realised that Kirsty and many other kids with autism had sensory issues with fabrics and how some clothes were made.
Labels and stitching on everything from socks to shirts, trousers, jumpers and school uniforms can cause problems and sometimes lead to behavioural issues in children with autism.
Meta decided to do something about it and, after three years of research and development, at the age of 57 and with no previous business experience, she set up Spectra Sensory Clothing.
Now, with an ever-growing base of satisfied customers right across the UK, her clothing range has helped transform the quality of life for many families.
Just this year, she was delighted to be recognised when she picked up two prizes at the Eastside Awards, which aims to celebrate achievement in east Belfast.
Meta's company was awarded the prize for best innovation and also best start-up.
Meta is herself a remarkable woman. She became a mum in her 30s, graduated with a politics degree at the age of 40, came through cancer in her 50s, and now in her 60s, has become an entrepreneur.
In addition, she and her husband, John (62), who works with her in the business, have opened their home and hearts to more than 20 foster kids over the years.
Little Kirsty came to them aged just two and with foetal alcohol syndrome.
Malnourished, and having been moved from one foster home to another since her birth, the couple fell in love with her and went on to adopt her.
Foetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a mother drinks during pregnancy, which can cause a range of physical and neurodevelopment problems, including an abnormal appearance, short height, low body weight, small head size, poor co-ordination, low intelligence, and behaviour problems.
The couple also have a son, Matthew (26), who was nine when they welcomed Kirsty into the family.
Matthew just graduated last year from Newcastle University with a degree in marketing - he now lives and works there in the city.
His mum is naturally proud that her son set up a support group for students with autism while studying for his degree.
Meta says: "I was 36 when I had Matthew and I probably would have liked more children, but it didn't happen.
"Matthew was nine and we had just bought this lovely big terraced house and I was showing my aunt around it when she commented that it was a great family home.
"Matthew came home from school one day with information on fostering and we decided to look into it.
"I had just lost my mother in 1999, who I had been nursing, and I was dreading my first Christmas without her.
"I got a call two weeks before Christmas from social services saying they had a wee girl aged two for us and so Kirsty arrived the week before Christmas.
"We had no plans to adopt, but we couldn't let her go. I remember buying her a red velvet dress for Christmas Day and I had to buy one for a child aged 6-9 months because she was so tiny and malnourished.
"She was very clingy and Matthew was at an age when he wanted a bit more independence, which allowed me to work harder with Kirsty.
"We knew she had issues and later discovered she is also autistic, but it just made us love her all the more."
Meta worked with the lobby group, Women Together for Peace, in her 30s and went on to work in community groups in charge of welfare.
Then, in her 50s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and came through a mastectomy. She was recovering from that when she went along to one of her first autism support meetings with other parents and for the first time learnt about the sensory issues surrounding clothing.
Her idea for her business took root that day and she spent some time researching and developing her special range of clothing.
With no business experience, she launched her own company three years ago, which she ran from home, but now operates from premises on the Albertbridge Road in the city.
She explains the background to setting it up: "When it came to Kirsty, I was a bit of a shopaholic as I loved buying clothes for her, but she wouldn't have worn anything I bought.
"I knew she had sensory issues around noise, but never about anything else. We had to cut labels off, but I just put that down to something many people did.
"My eyes were well and truly opened when I attended my first class to learn more about autism. Suddenly everything made sense, I learnt about the sensory issues around clothing, fabrics, labels, and seams. I went home and opened Kirsty's wardrobe and asked her to give me everything that she would never wear. There was not a lot left.
"The challenge in designing the clothes was in putting in the changes that needed to be made, while also making the school shirt and trousers look the same as any other and we have managed that. It took a while, but we did get it eventually.
"So at the ripe old age of 57 and three quarters, I decided to try and do something to help the children and parents and so Spectra Sensory Clothing Limited was born. It has been a long and sometimes very difficult road, but I am glad to say we have made it."
Meta's clothing removes or adapts irritants like seams, labels, buttons and zips etc.
Due to demand from parents, she launched her school uniform items first.
She has created a fashionable range of T-shirts for teens and, after her daughter struggled to wear Christmas jumpers because of the fabric, she has added Christmas T-shirts to her ever-evolving range.
That the clothes have made a difference is easy to see by the many positive testimonials from both parents and children on her website.
Her school shirts are designed with a soft collar and 100% cotton for comfort, the label is in the pocket and there are only three real buttons on the front to make it easier for children to pull them on and off. One mum in particular is indebted to Meta as she had major problems getting her daughter dressed for school each morning.
Meta says: "This mum had a terrible time trying to get her daughter to school in the mornings, but because her daughter could not communicate with her, she hadn't realised it was her school uniform causing the problem.
"Now the schoolgirl has no problem getting up and out in the morning, which has significantly helped her mother manage the morning routine."
The clothing range, still in development, also includes shoelaces that don't need to be tied and seamless socks, which are a best seller.
Meta has many ideas to add to her range, but finances are currently preventing her from expanding any further.
She is grateful to Invest NI, who did provide some support to get the business up and running, but having self-funded the bulk of it, she now desperately needs an investor to continue to expand.
She says: "I am always looking for ideas and I have a range of items that I haven't got manufactured yet because every penny we put in is our own and we just don't have the money.
"We have parents asking us for items.
"Last year, we were asked for boy's underwear and now I am trying to develop that.
"It takes time and money to develop new items for the range and we would love to keep adding new items, but we simply don't have the funding.
"I know I couldn't stop doing this now if I tried because I know how much it is needed.
"Most of what we do is made here in Northern Ireland and we print the slogans on the T-shirts ourselves."
Meta attended a national autism conference in London last year and, as a result, most of her customers are from England.
She believes that is because most local families don't yet know about her clothing range.
Those who do are most relieved to be able to buy her school uniforms, which are among her best sellers, but she also does a range of cool and fashionable T-shirts for boys and girls.
Also unique to her website is her "weighted" gilets for both adults and children.
She explains: "A lot of autistic children have weighted blankets, which help keep them more grounded, so we have designed a fashionable puffy sleeveless gilet for the same reason.
"I've never run a business before and I am learning a lot.
"They way I see it I am selling an answer to a problem and if someone rings me up looking for something in particular, I will go out of my way to find it."
You can view Meta's full range of clothing at www.spectrasensoryclothing.co.uk