A common difficulty with children on the autism spectrum is their dislike of personal hygiene. As I’ve experienced with my own children, they have difficulty with things such as showering, brushing their hair, having their hair cut, cleaning their teeth and changing their clothes. To some people, it may seem that they are lazy or slovenly. The reality is that many of their difficulties arise from sensory issues.
Both my children have sensory difficulties. For my son, he tends to be over-sensitive particularly with regard to touch. As I wrote in this post, my son cannot tolerate certain clothes. He can become irritated from clothes that are too tight, too stiff or made of the wrong material. Clothing has to be ultra comfy and when I find an item of clothing that he loves, I stock up as it can be hard to find suitable clothes. Hooded garments are a particular favourite for my children as the soft fabric and the hood provides a way for them to feel happy or relaxed. Hoodies are always a great comforter for my children and always accompany us whenever we go out.
Sensory difficulties also make teeth cleaning very difficult for autistic children. My son hates the taste of minty toothpaste and experiences a lof of discomfort when using a toothbrush. We have experimented a lot in this area and now use a strawberry flavoured toothpaste and an electric toothbrush. Though an electric toothbrush is a bit pricey, this has helped my son to cope better with teeth cleaning.
Another challenge is showering and bathing. Some children hate the feel of water and for a time our son hated the sensation from the spray of water when taking a shower. The other area of difficulty is the contrast in temperature; cooler water being sprayed on my son when he is hot is very difficult for him to deal with so its important we get the temperature of the water right. Even leaving a warm bath into the cooler air can be an unpleasant experience for my children but I’ve found that warmed up towels and clothes can help when coming out of the bath or shower.
Washing hair is another difficult area. Aversion for hair washing can relate to the temperature of the water, the feel of water on their head, soap getting in eyes and the texture and smell of the shampoo and conditioner. Both my children have very sensitive scalps which makes washing and brushing their hair a painful experience. My son in particular is very reluctant to wash his hair but we’ve found the 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioners and the all in one body and hair washes useful. It reduces the number of products my son has to use which makes the process of cleaning himself easier. For my daughter, a good conditioner is essential as it reduces those awful knots you get in longer hair. Similarly wide toothed combs and soft brushes are also helpful but again you have to practise with different brushes and combs to find what is right for your child. You could look out for combs and brushes in your child’s favourite colour or one with a character motif on which can all help with motivation and engagement.
As for hair cuts, this is a common source of stress for many autistic children. I know a teenager who refuses to have his hair cut as he hates the sensation of loosing his hair and the feeling of exposure. For my son, he is the opposite and hates having hair on his head and if it gets to a certain length he is desperate to remove it. Going to the hairdressers used to be a traumatic event but now he is that bit older he is coping better with a visit to the local barbers, as long as it is quiet and there is no queue!
Equally important is teaching my children about hygiene. This is an ongoing process in our house. I show my son when his clothes are dirty and need changing and I use a mirror to show him when he needs to clean his face or when he needs to wash or brush his hair. I don’t want him to become obsessed with his appearance but I think it’s important he understands the importance of being clean and tidy. I also demonstrate how to do certain things which is a lot easier than just relying on verbal instructions which can be confusing or vague.
I’ve found that there are no quick solutions to the challenges of personal hygiene and it has taken me a while to find solutions to some of my children’s difficulties. Nevertheless here are some tips that may help reduce stress.
- consider your child’s sensory issues;
- create visual timetables to encourage a good routine;
- be prepared to be flexible with your child;
- experiment with different products until you find one your child likes;
- try different toothbrushes;
- look for non-minty toothpastes – you could try the local health food shop;
- use a 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner or use a body wash that can also be used for the hair;
- try dry shampoos if your child can’t tolerate washing their hair;
- try deoodrants and sprays but beware that the sensation of a spray may be upsetting;
- get the temperature of the bath or shower right for your child;
- for hand washing, try liquid soap which can be more fun than a slimy bar of soap;
- try different types of brushes and combs;
- if your child loves a particular item of clothing, stock up;
- show them when they are dirty and demonstrate techniques;
- write a social story or look for a book on hygiene.
I’m sure there are many more tips besides these so if you have anything you would like to share please comment below.