Personal hygiene for children with autism can be a challenging task to teach because of sensory issues. However, since personal hygiene is a very important life skill, it should be taught very early on. With ‘typical’ children, there is a great emphasis on teaching toddlers to brush their teeth, use the bathroom independently and to wash their hands. For children with autism, there should not be a difference. Since some children with autism are slow to learn personal hygiene routines, you want to support them through this process. Personal hygiene can include washing your body, using deodorant, brushing your teeth, combing or brushing your hair and cleaning and trimming your nails.
Where do I begin when teaching personal hygiene for children with autism?
Children with autism should know about personal hygiene and how it will affect their health. The most important thing to do is to schedule a routine for all personal hygiene tasks. As children with autism do very well with scheduled routines, teaching personal hygiene early will provide structure for them throughout the day, help them to remember the steps in the task and help them to become more independent. Some of the tasks that children with autism should learn are taking a bath/shower everyday (this is more important for older children), brushing their teeth, wearing clean clothes and using deodorant. By maintaining a consistent routine with bathing, dressing and brushing, children with extreme difficult sensory processing issues can be successful with personal hygiene.
And puberty begins…
So you have conquered your child’s sensory issues and have established a routine for personal hygiene and then puberty starts. As with a lot of parents, puberty can be difficult for the parent and the child and can bring about a lot of hygiene challenges. Children are often curious about the changes that their bodies are experiencing and it is important that parents address any questions that their children may have and redirect any inappropriate behaviors. Depending on the level of sensory issues that your child with autism may have, you may notice a defensiveness when it comes to normal touch sensations. What may be a normal touch sensation for you, may be extremely difficult for your child. Here are a few other issues that you may encounter:
- issues with your daughter wearing sanitary napkins during her menstrual cycle
- sensitivity with the development of your daughter’s breast
- aggressive behaviors due to painful menstrual cycles
- sensitivity with hair growth on parts of the body
- self-injurious behaviors due to a change in hormones
- sensory issues with shaving
Since these issues can cause trauma and/or an increase of inappropriate behaviors, it is important to start teaching your child early and preparing them appropriately depending on their developmental level. For example, when your son becomes a teenager, introduce him to a razor. Start by having him hold the razor with the cap on. Then, once he becomes comfortable with holding it, have him practice using it with the cap on using hand-over-hand movements. Then, as he becomes even more comfortable with the razor, teach him how to use it appropriately. You can use the same method when teaching your daughter how to shave their underarms and/or legs.
In addition to shaving, your daughter will have even more personal hygiene tasks to master. And one of the main ones will be menstruation. Depending on where your daughter is developmentally and functionally will determine how you approach teaching her about her menstrual cycle. Here are a few tips to help with menstruation:
- have your daughter practice wearing a panty liner before her period begins so she can get use to the feel
- use a visual schedule or calendar to show when her period is scheduled to come
- teach your daughter where the pad goes (visually or your can mark her underwear) and when to change the pad
- use a social story to teach about menstrual cycles and what symptoms she may experience during her cycle
- do not use tampons, as your daughter may not remember to change them
What about the big S?
One of the most dreaded aspects of puberty for some parents is sexuality. In my experience, no matter where the child is functionally and developmentally, this part of the brain works “normally.” However, just because this aspect of the body is working “normally” does not mean that they are mature enough to understand or handle their sexuality. So what do you do? Teach them about their bodies (use real terms), what is appropriate and not appropriate in public situations and what to do if someone touches them inappropriately. As a parent, it is up to you on how far in depth you go in to teaching them about their sexuality, but you should at the very least teach them about their bodies, appropriateness and safety.
Poor personal hygiene can be a major factor in your child making and keeping friends. It can also cause adults from getting and keeping jobs. This is why it is very important that children with autism learn about personal hygiene early, while they are still young and learning routines and procedures. But remember, during this process be prepared that your child will need help with understanding about their personal hygiene and sexuality. For a lot of children with autism, things do not happen overnight and take time. So, be patient with your child and yourself.
What have been your challenges with teaching personal hygiene to children with autism?