Personal hygiene and your child with autism spectrum disorder

When your teenage child was younger, you taught her the basics of good hygiene – how to clean her teeth, have a shower or bath, wash and brush her hair, blow her nose and wash her hands.

In adolescence, your child’s changing body means that his personal hygiene routines need to change. For example, your child needs to learn how to use deodorant, when to put on clean clothes, when to shave and how to care for pimples. Girls need to learn how to manage periods.

It’s also important for your child to learn how to manage personal hygiene without your help, or with less of your help.

Some teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will probably be able to learn new hygiene skills without too much difficulty. But they might not fully understand the social rules behind personal hygiene and why they need to change their old routines. You can explain by saying things like, ‘We sweat more when we reach puberty. Most people don’t like the smell of sweat, so we wash regularly’.

Personal hygiene: practical strategies for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

Teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often visual learners. Also, they often learn best by doing rather than watching or listening. This means that tools like visual schedules, Social Stories™ with pictures, and video-modelling can be really good ways of helping them learn and use personal hygiene skills.

Schedules that break down your child’s routine into steps can help your child learn independent hygiene skills and put these skills into practice. Schedules can include  words, pictures or both.

Schedules can cover your child’s whole hygiene routine – for example, shower, wash face, brush teeth, put on deodorant, brush hair. You can also use schedules for just one part of your child’s routine, like showering.

Here’s an example of a showering schedule:

  • I will wash my face, arms, stomach, feet and legs with soap and a face washer.
  • I will wash under my armpits with soap.
  • I will wash around my vagina/penis with soap.
  • After the shower, I will dry my armpits with a towel. I will dry my around my vagina/penis with a towel.
  • I will put deodorant under my armpits.
  • I will get dressed into clean clothes.

Put the schedule up in the bathroom where your child will see it every morning.

Social Stories™
Here’s an example of a Social Story™ that can help your child understand some of the social rules behind personal hygiene, as well as hygiene skills:

  • I will notice that I am sweating more.
  • Sweating is when my body releases small amounts of fluid to make sure I am not too hot.
  • I might notice this when it’s hot outside, when I am nervous or when I am playing sport.
  • Most people don’t like the smell of sweat, so I need to wash myself every day.
  • After my shower, I should use deodorant under my arms.
  • This might feel strange. This is OK.
  • Deodorant will help to stop my body smelling bad.

Video modelling
Video-modelling can help your child learn self-care skills too. You could video yourself putting on deodorant and watch the video with your child.  If you record the video on your child’s smartphone or tablet, your child could watch the video and do the skills as she watches.

You will probably need to go over these messages and strategies many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. You might find it helps to share experiences and get support from other parents in similar situations.