Personal Style Development: Encouraging Individuals with Special Needs to Look and Feel Their Best

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Sarah A. Weddle, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on February 23, 2023.]

Our personal style reflects the choices we make throughout our lives. Style projects our inner selves to the outside world and communicates to others what we like and how we want to be seen.
Developing a personal style may be difficult for individuals with special needs who struggle to articulate their thoughts or desires and rely on others to assist them in completing many self-care activities.

For those of us who care for these individuals, it is important to remember that if we make choices for them, we might be denying them the opportunity to engage in self-discovery and personal style development. Below are various strategies you can use to encourage them to discover their own unique identities and styles and then share them with the world. 

Pictures are a great place to start the search, and the internet is a great resource to discover the latest fashion trends. Sit down at the computer together, ask them what appeals to them, and take some notes. Next, find a store that carries styles they like and ask them to select a few. If the individual is non-verbal, they can point and gesture to items to indicate their choices. Be mindful that this search is not about what you like, but rather, exploring their preferences.

Next, head to the dressing room so they can try on the clothing they have chosen. As they try on different outfits, their body language can be an indicator of comfort, preference, and fit. Remember that not everyone enjoys shopping, so try to accomplish what you can and end the trip before you see signs of agitation. 

Hair Care 
A trip to the hairdresser or the barber shop can be a great community outing and an opportunity to interact with new people. Before you make an appointment, look at some pictures for inspiration and to assess interest using the strategies identified earlier. 

If you think an appointment might be problematic or if the individual doesn’t tolerate strangers, it is a good idea to make some brief visits first. These visits should be highly rewarding and a time to introduce the stylist or barber without any significant demands. As comfort increases, so can the time and interactions. 

Skin and Makeup 
Good skin care starts with cleansing and hydration. Individuals in our care may require a range of prompts to do these self-care tasks thoroughly. Over time, as you oversee their skin care routine, encourage them to do as much as they can on their own. As they learn and practice new skills, you can begin to fade out your assistance. Be sure to provide lots of encouragement and praise as they master these tasks.

For sensitive skin, consult with a medical professional for the best types of products to use. Fragrance is also something to consider as some individuals might find a scent unpleasant but be unable to communicate this to you. 
There are many make-up tutorials on social media and watching them can be a perfect leisure and self-care activity. Find a mirror and good lighting, brushes, eye shadow and blush pallets, lipstick/gloss, and practice applying make-up on yourself and/or each other. 

Don’t forget to assist with capturing those important moments by taking some pictures. Together, you can hang your favorite photos in the home and make scrapbooks as reminders of the individual’s developing style across the seasons of life. 

Before they head out to share their new look with others, help them practice looking into the mirror so they can check in and affirm their style choices. When all is set to their liking, send them off by thanking them for being the wonderful person they are. 

Sarah A. Weddle, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D is Divisional Director of Clinical Services and Training for May Institute. She can be contacted

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit