LEWISTON — For a stubborn little 4-year-old, Cherie LaFlamme’s brainstorm probably saved him from frostbite.

LaFlamme, a behavior analyst with the Lewiston School Department, works with special needs children, often those with autism.

One little boy in her care loved to be outside, playing in the cold. But he hated his mittens.

“We could not get mittens on him,” she said. “It was a feeling, a tactile thing. He just didn’t like the feeling of having them on his hands.”

And the instant he went outside, his bare hands went into the snow.

“It would hurt, because it was cold, but he didn’t understand the cause and effect there,” she said. “So he’d get mad at me because something hurt.”

What he needed, she said, was a pair of mittens he couldn’t take off.

“I went home that night, grabbed a scrap of Polar fleece and cut out a shirt with mittens in the end of sleeves,” she said. “I sewed it together and took it back to school with me the next day.”

LaFlamme said she’s been sewing since she was 8, and had even done some contract stitching for local clothing makers.

“When I was 8, my mother taught my Girl Scout Troop to sew for a badge,” she said. “We had to make something to wear for a fashion show and a duffel bag for camp. I used to make doll clothes and later clothes for my kids and myself. I can make pretty much anything I want.”

So that next morning, she slipped the shirt over her young charge’s head right before playtime.

“He put his arms in and got to the end and there were the mittens,” she said. “He looked at it and looked at it but I just kept going. And away he went. He had the mittens on. He had no choice, and it worked great.”

After that first day on the playground, other parents began asking her for mitten shirts for their kids.

“That was the beginning,” she said. “I made them for people because they asked. And then I took them to a craft fair and I actually sold quite a few.”

The design is pretty simple, and she makes them in about any child’s size or fleece fabric pattern.

“When I just started, I was mostly making them for parents of kids with special needs,” she said. “But when I went to the craft fairs, it was mostly parents of typical kids.”

She’s changed the design slightly over the years. She added a wrist slit that allows older kids to poke their fingers out and unzip a zipper if it’s necessary. She also has an option to add a hood to the shirt.

She figures she’s sold a few hundred mitten shirts since 2008 in a variety of colors and sizes, mostly on Facebook and Etsy. She sells them for $10 to $15, depending on the size.

“I think there’s a real need there,” she said. ‘It’s something I came up with that really fills a need, especially for the special needs community. And it’s a simple design.”

Perhaps too simple. LaFlamme applied for a patent on her designs last year, but was turned down. First, she was told that she should have applied for the patent before she started selling them.

“I didn’t have the money to pay for a lawyer, so I just did the patent myself,” LaFlamme said. “What I didn’t realize at first, what I failed to read, was that if you’ve been selling it for more than a year you can’t qualify for a patent. The other thing was, they felt it wasn’t unique enough.”

People have had methods for keeping children from losing their mittens for years, but there is a big difference between that and a mitten shirt, she said.

“Mittens on string just keep kids from losing their mittens,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything to keep them from taking them off in the first place. This is better. They just can’t take them off.”

She’s not too worried about not getting a patent, however. She figures if she couldn’t get one, neither will anyone else. It’s a kind of protection, after all.

“The fact that I tried to get a patent is on record,” she said. “It might make a difference. I hope it doesn’t happen, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Do you know a creative person with a technological bent? We’d love to talk to them. Contact Staff Writer Scott Taylor at [email protected], on Twitter as Orange_me or call 207-689-2846.

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