The idea for Wolf & Friends started with a feeling familiar to all mothers: Uh-oh.
In 2014, Carissa Tozzi had been told her son, Wolf, who was 4 at the time, might have “sensory issues,” a catchall term that could mean anything from not liking the feeling of clothing tags to being capable of a full-on freakout when the lights are too bright. Mrs. Tozzi, a brand consultant and Pinterest enthusiast, eagerly dived into the world of therapy websites to find products that might help her boy.
It didn’t go well.
“I was overwhelmed by this sense of doom and gloom,” she said in a recent interview. The sites were a mishmash of garish colors and plastic gewgaws, and it appeared the products had been photographed with a 1976 Kodak. Children were in the photos, but sparingly, often with little connection shown between the product and the way it was to be used.
Mrs. Tozzi wondered if she were the only one bothered by the cheesiness of these sites, and began talking to friends who had children with various conditions. One was Gena Mann, a fellow resident of Fairfield County, Conn., and a former magazine colleague, who had four children, including two sons with autism, one severely affected. (Her husband, the songwriter and producer Billy Mann, is a board member of Autism Speaks.) Mrs. Mann was also no stranger to sport-shopping, and she also hated the sites where she was forced to buy things for her sons. Together, they realized that if you were someone who really cared about fashion and design — and Mrs. Tozzi was the kind of person who, in second grade, went to the mat with her mother over the right to wear clogs — these sites ratcheted up their levels of anxiety.
“There are enough things in the life of a special-needs parent that are challenging,” said Mrs. Mann, sipping her cappuccino at the Breslin, a restaurant in the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, where we met in March. “You know what I really wanted? A space online where autism didn’t suck all the time.”
And thus Wolf & Friends was born, a lush, inspirational platform of fashion and design for children up to around the age of 10 who happen to have disabilities.
“Happen to” is the operative phrase. There is nothing visually about wolfandfriends.com that makes this obvious, and that’s the point. There is a very welcome sense that not-typical children are not special; they’re just a part of our world. The look is upscale and Real Simple–like, which is not surprising considering both Mrs. Tozzi and Mrs. Mann worked in magazines. (Before having children, Mrs. Tozzi was a publicist and celebrity-wrangler, and Mrs. Mann was a photo editor; they became friends while working together at Cosmo Girl.)
The furnishings and toys could be appropriate for any child, but here they are explained in terms of their developmental and therapeutic functions. For example, a blog post about having a designated place for your child to do schoolwork leads to half a dozen adorable wood desks but also includes a few words from a psychologist — “Neuroimaging clearly shows that individuals” with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder “have different pathways of communication in the brain when compared with ‘typical’ individuals” — and an explication of the importance of modeling organization to children with A.D.D. or A.D.H.D.
The swings on the site are just swings, but the text explains how they can calm a child who’s overstimulated. And what looks like a pretty children’s bedroom taken from Pinterest (it is) is broken down into its sensory-friendly elements: the fabrics on the bed, a tent or bed canopy for muffling noise, and a white noise machine for muffling — make that drown out — everything else. (Wolf & Friends does not make or sell the items featured on the site; it links to places that do.)
Mrs. Mann was particularly focused on items that help her sons, particularly Jasper, now 13. “He never really plays with toys,” she said, “so the most important items were active things, the swings and bean bag chairs and climbing mats.”
The friends of Wolf & Friends have their own blog, with articles on subjects like the uses of dollhouses for socially impaired children (complete with a cute dollhouse) and articles about raising a child with Down syndrome and what it’s like to be the sibling of someone who is different. That piece, titled “The Look” to describe the way other people sometimes look at her and her family when they are out in public together, was written by Mrs. Mann’s 9-year-old daughter, Lulu, about Jasper, who is prone to public meltdowns. It is by far the most popular page on the site.
I sent some parents with special-needs children to look at Wolf & Friends, and there was a good deal of oohing-and-aahing at the concept and its aesthetics, but also more than a few protests that the sight was too pricey. “Autism is expensive enough already,” one friend said.
I didn’t really see it; I think they have a good range of prices, and maybe there are some people who want to spend $109 for a really well-made British shark costume. Still, it’s easy to do a little eye-rolling at Wolf & Friends. Oh, great, another precious curated website for children from two gorgeous, tousled blond stay-at-home moms. Mrs. Tozzi and Mrs. Mann do indeed look expensive and pampered, which they may be; they are also both savvy and deeply kind, with a come-to-the-rescue mentality.
When I mentioned offhandedly that my own teenage autistic son seems as if he’ll never be able to tie his shoes and that he’s outgrown any of the little children’s Velcro models, they individually began researching cool grown-up sneakers without laces, landing on the same recommendation for a pair of men’s laceless Adidas.
For their next step, Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Tozzi are looking for ways incorporate children with disabilities into the wider community. This fall, they will work with Nibble & Squeak, a company that takes over upscale restaurants for family-friendly dining events, to host an event for special-needs families. As someone whose child only recently learned not to filch the food off the plates of strangers, I know how welcome an evening like this can be. “We’ll make the space sensory-friendly, and we’ll train the staff ahead of time,” Mrs. Tozzi said. “Kids can have a bite and some activities, and parents will be in a judgement-free zone where they can get an amazing meal.”
The women have certainly seen how inclusion works when it comes to shopping. Mrs. Tozzi uses her son, Wolf, “who has a lot of opinions, like his mama, when it comes to style,” as a focus group for many of the items. And Mrs. Mann? “My 9-year-old daughter has long been the beneficiary of my love of shopping,” she said. “When listing the talents of everyone in the family, she says that’s mine.”