Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Autism Behavior Solutions – 4 Tips to Solve Hygiene Issues
Many parents find that one of the most challenging aspects of autism behavior is dealing with the issue of personal hygiene. An understanding of how to take care of one’s personal hygiene does not come naturally to kids with autism, like it does to typical kids. It can often be a battle to get your kid with autism to brush their teeth, take a bath or shower, and perform other cleanliness related behaviors.
Why do kids with autism have such a tough time with personal hygiene?
Kids with autism need to have a reason for doing everything. Things need to make sense. Behaviors related to hygiene, such as brushing teeth, washing their body and hair, brushing their hair, wearing clean clothes — all seem rather arbitrary to them.
Since they can’t usually smell any body odor and are unaware of any consequence of not doing these things, they have a hard time understanding why they are necessary.
Others around them find these behaviors — or rather the lack thereof — to be disturbing, but it is often hard to make the person with autism understand why.
Why is the autism behavior so difficult for personal hygiene?
Kids with autism do not pick up on social cues, so the usual peer pressure that gets most kids to start doing these things at a certain age will not work. Also, if the parent does not specifically teach that these personal hygiene activities are necessary, as well as how to do them, the person will probably just never be aware that it’s something they should do.
Sensory Aspects and how they relate to autism behavior
The other big reason for this kind of autism behavior and neglect of hygiene is sensory. Many kinds of autism behavior can be traced back to sensory reasons.
- Brushing their hair might hurt their head.
- The spray of a shower often is very uncomfortable for some sensitive individuals.
- Toothpaste might taste weird, and putting something in their mouth induces in some a gag reflex.
- Deodorants often have a perfumed smell and feel weird under their armpits, so are avoided.
There are many sensory reasons why kids with autism may avoid hygiene related behaviors, and the trick is to find ways around them.
How to Help Your Child with Personal Hygiene
Many, many parents complain that they can’t get their kid to take a shower or brush their teeth no matter how much they push the issue. But there are ways to make this autism behavior a little bit easier to manage.
1. Make cleanliness part of their routine from the time they are a child.
Have baths at the same time every day. Introduce teeth brushing and hair brushing from an early age. Make baths more exciting by having the child bring a favorite toy in the bath, perhaps one that is only for the bath, so they have something to look forward to.
Use a toothbrush with a cartoon character that they like so they will feel comforted or excited. Use their interests. A toothbrush that lights up or has a lot of colors in it may catch their interest, for example. Make sure the toothbrush is as soft as possible, and do hand over hand for a while until you are sure they have gotten the hang of it. For some, an electric toothbrush will work better.
Use a detangler before brushing hair if it is knotty. Some girls will prefer a comb over a brush. Try to brush or comb it when it is wet, as that is much easier. If this is distressing to your child, try to play music or a favorite video to distract them. If it is too hard to do every day, pick one day a week and write it on the calendar so they can see it coming. Gradually work your way up to doing it more often. This goes for any activity that is difficult.
2. Make sure your child understands the relevance of hygiene activities.
A kid with autism, at least compared with typical kids, will usually only do things when it matters to them, when they can see the reason why it benefits them. They won’t accept a “Because I told you so” or “Because everyone does it” answer.
Explain to your child that when they get older, their body starts releasing smells that other people will find offensive. And that it is their job to clean themselves enough so people don’t smell these smells. Explain that if they want to have friends, they must shower and use deodorant because no one else will want to be around them otherwise.
One Mother’s Solution for this autism behavior
That will not work with all kids, because a lot of kids with autism are not at the stage yet where having friends is that important to them. Or they just plain might not believe you.
A special interest may command more attention. One mother solved this autism behavior problem in a rather creative way. She took her teenage son’s underwear and put it on his pillow, so that when he went to bed he could smell it when he lied down. The kid ran to his mother saying “Mom!! There’s something that smells really bad on my bed!” The mother said, “Then why don’t you bring it to me and we’ll wash it? See, this is what the rest of us smell when you walk by.”
The experiential method, where your child can actually experience for him or herself what is bothersome to other people, cannot be underrated. Most kids with autism behavior need this kind of concrete experience to understand why they must do or not do something to truly understand.
3. Let them have control over picking out hygiene products.
There is so much variance in what will work for each person. It is important that you try a variety of each kind of product to find the one that works best for your child. Problematic autism behaviors are often the result of sensory issues.
For example, take deodorant. You want to be very specific in telling your child when and why they need to use deodorant. And reinforce the lesson with semi-frequent reminders. But you also need to make sure they have a deodorant that works for them.
Many kids on the spectrum have sensitive skin and are sensitive to fragrances. Try to find an unscented, natural deodorant. This can be easily accomplished at your local health food store. Consider the issue of roll on vs. spray. Roll on is usually easier. Spray can feel uncomfortable and jolting when hitting the skin.
For the truly sensitive, there are even deodorants made only from rock salt, that have no fragrances or additives. Tom’s of Maine makes a good unscented one, and there are countless others you will find at a natural food store. Let your child choose a few to try out. On the other hand, if they like fragrances, let them choose one with a fragrance they like.
Many kids complain about strong tasting toothpastes. Most types of toothpaste are mint flavored, but not all. Tom’s of Maine makes a good strawberry flavored one that a lot of kids like. You can find fluoride and fluoride free.
Again, go to a natural food store like Whole Foods, which will have a large selection of products to choose from.
There are a lot of flavors besides mint on the market, and one of these might be more pleasing to your child. One parent was looking for toothpaste for their child with “no taste.” That might be hard to find, but if you truly get in a jam, you can try just using baking soda to brush teeth. The mechanical force of tooth brushing is more important than what’s used to brush them, dentists say. (Unless you need fluoride, which is what toothpaste is most often used for.)
Shampoo and soap
Does your child find body wash easier to deal with than soap, or do they think it feels slimy? Experiment. Try different kinds of soaps. Again, try to avoid synthetic soaps for those who are sensitive to artificial fragrances. It’s easy to find a selection of them in natural food stores. It’s also easy to find soaps with natural ingredients that may be less irritating to the skin that contain essential oils with a number of different fragrances that might be pleasing to your child. The same goes for shampoo.
Make cleanliness interesting, and be creative. Have a theme month — every month you can have your child choose something new. Lavender, peppermint, jasmine, lilac. Research with your child the therapeutic qualities of each fragrance, and try to make it fun and special, instead of something boring that they “have to” do.
If you have a garden or have access to one, you can show your child what these things look like in their original form, and even do art projects around it. The sky’s the limit in terms of engaging your child’s interest.
4. Other Tips
- Some kids with autism behavior do best with visual references. Make a chart of things to do — brush teeth, brush hair, shower, put on deodorant — that they can follow every day. Or have two buckets — one that has products they need to use, and one that they can put the ones they have already used for the day. This way they can keep better track.
- Write a social story that explains what hygiene activities they need to do, how, and why. Seeing something in written form works for a lot of kids.
- If you are having trouble getting your older kid to understand how important things like using deodorant or showering are, try to enlist the parent of one of his friends to talk to him. Often, kids will listen more to adults or people outside the family than their parents. And sometimes, eventually, peer pressure will do the trick, as this post on an autism message board revealed.
“We have the same struggle with washing and teeth brushing. Then, all the kids in his youth group made him a “Clean Kit” and gave it to him, asking that he start using it because he smelled. They gave him shampoo, bar of soap, deodorant, tooth paste and brush. He came home with it and said, ‘I guess I need to start cleaning myself if I want to make and keep friends.'”
With this information, you now have several tools in your mental handbag to use in promoting hygiene in your autistic child or teenager. Be consistent, stick to a routine, explain the relevance, take into consideration sensory issues, and give as much control as possible of the process to the child. Learning proper personal hygiene is very important for those with autism, and is one autism behavior that can become a problem throughout life if you don’t try to address it early.
And for additional tips that can make life simpler and smoother for parents raising a child or teen with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, see The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide and the Asperger’s Syndrome Guide for Teens and Young Adults.