TRAINING AUTISTIC TEENS ON PERSONAL HYGIENE
If your autistic kid is now nearing the age of puberty (10-14 for girls and 12-16 for boys), it would be clear that there is a pressing need for you as the parent to act as the role model and their own trainer who will teach them personal hygiene. Unlike their younger years when it’s still allowable for your child to get sweaty and dirty from playing because you are always there to attend to their needs, reaching adolescence stage will lead them to feel a sense of independence and that means more time to be alone and do things on their own. For an understanding parent, this behaviour is good and all except for the fact that the increase of hormonal activities will spur certain changes in your teen’s body which include chemical reactions. A teen’s body will easily develop undesirable odour which can lead to social challenges if not handled quickly and properly. That is why as a parent of an autistic teen, it is a must that you help them come up with the changes caused by puberty and overcome hurdles in one of the life’s most crucial milestones.
The human body is composed of two sweat glands, namely the Eccrine gland and Apocrine gland. While the former becomes active even in early stages of childhood and is responsible for secreting an odourless type of sweat, the latter only activates when one enters adolescence. The big issue with apocrine glands which are located in the armpit and groin is that they secret the kind of sweat that can smell and develop into the repellent body odour which many people have a bad experience with.
Aside from body odour, autistic teens are also susceptible to other hygienic problems such as bad breath, smelly hair and dandruff, skin disease, and dirty nails. It is normally expected that teenagers should start to act like adults and become more independent in addressing their needs, which includes maintaining their own hygiene. But for autistic teens, accepting such responsibility may be very challenging if there’s no one to train and guide them because of autism-specific issues that will tend to impede smooth transition. These problems related to the nature of autism include:
Sensitivity to Sensory Inputs
There are many situations when an autistic person’s sensory issues can hinder or discourage them from exercising proper personal hygiene.
- Heightened Sense of Touch. A simple shower session can become very taxing for autistic teens if they are very sensitive to the feeling of water droplets dripping over their body whether hot or cold. The same is true when applying specific products into the body such as deodorant, hair spray, and lotion. Having skin sensitivity can also discourage teens from brushing their teeth, or going to a barber shop or hairdresser due to the uncomfortable sensation they feel from scissors cutting and trimmed hair pricking.
To help them overcome these problems, you may try introducing baths instead of showers and adjust the water temperature to their preference. It is also better to give them multi-purpose products such as 2 in 1 shampoo (with conditioner) to minimize the number of rubbing needed and a liquid soap that can be mixed with the water they to bathe in. You should also give them towels that have less texture and toothbrushes with softer bristles.
- Heightened Sense of Smell and Taste. Specific hygienic products that may seem mildly fragrant, tolerably strong or enjoyably flavourful for normal people can be very discomforting and be intimidating for autistic people. Autistic teens can also develop irritability to specific hygiene products that have relatively strong fragrance or odours such as shampoos, soaps, toothpaste and perfumes or colognes. Letting your teen use these products can easily discourage them from taking a bath or brushing their teeth. The opposite problem may also arise, where your teen becomes more attracted to smelly things which worsens the problem of maintaining cleanliness.
To lessen the negative effects of hygiene product odours, it is advisable to bring your teen with you in purchasing these products so you will know the brand or flavour that they prefer. In the case of getting intrigued by smelly stuff such as their own urine or poo, you must educate them about proper sanitation and impose autism-friendly disciplinary actions if needed.
- Heightened Sense of Hearing. Some autistic teens may not like the sound of water dripping from the shower or faucet, or the splashing of it in the tub while they take a bath. For auditory issues such as these, try giving them noise-cancelling headphones. If they are instead sensory offensive and would want to hear the sound of water to the point that they can flood the whole bathroom, it is advisable to supervise them if possible if they prefer showers, or fill up the tub by yourself and only call them when it’s ready.
Social Perception Issues
Most of the time, autistic individuals including teens, cannot understand the conventional things that are easily comprehended by neurotypicals in the society. If an autistic teen has body odour and people around would try to make verbal cues or body language in the attempt to prompt the teen about it, there is a great chance that the teen cannot figure it out. This discourages others in trying to make friends with the teen or welcoming the same to their group. To prevent this case from happening, addressing the issue at home is the best type of preventive measure. The most effective things that you could do include:
- Present a visual aid specifying the hygienic routine that your teen would follow, including the time of day for each activity.
- As much as possible, try to break down the hygiene tasks into the most basic instructions and provide pictures or illustrations for difficult ones.
- You can tell stories either made up or real life, explaining the importance of personal hygiene as the moral lesson.
- Inappropriate public behaviours related to hygiene such as farting, taking off clothes, and indiscriminate peeing or spitting may also need to be taught.
- You can present a mirror to let your teen know that they are dirty and needs cleaning up, with proper reasoning.