Teaching Hygiene Without Meltdowns

From information gathered from interviews and surveys, many parents expressed that hygiene issues are one of their biggest concerns. Children with autism sometimes experience a breakdown in understanding the importance of cleanliness. They do not automatically understand that if they don’t shower, germs may make them sick, and when they smell bad, it is difficult to make friends. Because these outcomes may not matter to them, it is essential to teach the importance of good hygiene, and why she should care about being clean. Below are some tried-and-proven tips that focus on helping your child to shower or bathe daily without either of you melting down.

  1. Place a bath or shower symbol in your child’s daily schedule.  Make sure that you schedule your child’s bath/shower during a time when she is not going to feel rushed. If your child has difficulty getting into the bathtub or shower, be patient and let her take some time to get adjusted to this transition.
  2. Make taking a bath/shower part of your child’s daily routine.  Taking a bath/shower is not a choice, but a must. Just like going to bed and eating are not optional and essential for survival, bathing or showering should be a part of your child’s schedule every day.
  3. Respect your child’s sensory needs.  There are many overwhelming stimulators when taking a bath or shower: the sound of running water, the feeling of water itself, the steam, the smell of soap and shampoo, etc. Bathing can cause a sensory overload for your child.  You can try different types of soaps and shampoos to ensure that your child is comfortable.
  4. Create a task strip, breaking down each individual step involved in the bath or shower.  Include turning on the water, wetting the whole body, putting soap on a washcloth or sponge, etc. If your child tends to forget to wash certain parts of her body, you can include this in the task strip also.  Write down every part of the body that you want her to wash. Laminate the task strip and hang it in the shower.
  5. Use a timer to either encourage your child to stay in the bath/shower longer or to get her out of the bath/shower if she tends to take too much time.  You can also try using music instead of a timer. Create a CD that she can listen to while in the bathroom for the length of her bath or shower time.  When the CD is finished, it is time to get out.
  6. Remember that typically, children on the autism spectrum have difficulty understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.  You can explain the importance of hygiene to your child by using a picture social story. Describe how others feel and what they may think when someone does not take a bathe. Be clear about how other kids may not want to hang out with her if she smells bad. This thought process may not come naturally to your child. So using something motivating, like your child’s desire to have friends, if she cares about this, may encourage her to take a bath or shower.
  7. Place a picture of a motivator or reward after the bath/shower symbol in her daily schedule.  Reward appropriate behavior with a desired activity or item.
  8. Try using a chart with stars or stickers.  Clearly define the requirements for receiving a star or sticker. For example, if your child needs to wash her body with soap, write, “Wash your whole body with soap to earn 1 sticker.”  Make an agreement with your child that if she gets seven stickers she will earn a reward.  Be sure to use a very exciting reward as her motivator.

Hygiene issues can get worse as your child gets older.  The longer she goes without a strict routine to adhere to, the worse the behavior can become. However, with some organization, planning, and creative ideas, you can motivate your child to complete the desired task. Remember that your child is visual and learns from repetition, and don’t give up!  If a strategy doesn’t work the first time, or even the second, third, or fourth time, keep trying.  It will get easier!

If you found this post helpful, please leave a comment!

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  • jaemi
    Posted at 19:11h, 03 January Reply

    I love this! It is such a great motivator

    • Jennifer Lingle
      Posted at 19:25h, 03 January Reply

      I am so glad that you found this helpful! Which part did you find motivating? Do you have a child with Autism?

  • Kimberly
    Posted at 01:06h, 08 January Reply

    Great ideas and encouragement! My son is NT but some of those tips are great to help any parent teach any child about hygiene.

  • Michelle
    Posted at 04:11h, 08 January Reply

    I love the idea of using a task strip to remind my son of all the body parts he needs to wash. My son actually loves taking a bath but I have to kneel next to the tub and tell him which body parts to wash. Thank you for taking the time to write this article!

    Posted at 09:55h, 08 January Reply

    Thank you for posting! My daughter is 10 with PDD-NOS. Getting her into the bath isnt really the problem. The meltdown usually occurs when I come in to make sure she has not turned the tub into a swimming pool and start instructing her on what she needs to wash before she gets out. I also purchased a book called ” Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for young people with Autism” Reading the book is very difficult. She will fight me on reading it, sometimes I can get her to read a few pages with me then she wants nothing to do with it. Its a very good book, so if there are others that have kids who like to read, this has easy reading level, mild cartoon photos. Any other suggestions?

  • Theresa
    Posted at 18:14h, 08 January Reply

    my daughter is 9 and has PDD, bath time has always been a huge fight full of meltdowns, from getting in, washing, getting out, drying off, i have two other kids to wash too, so i usually do her last, she doesn’t handle having her hair washed well, or most soaps, and i have to be super fast or she gets itchy, its tiring sometimes, im looking for any suggestions, im a single mom, and can use any help right now, thanks for your time…

  • Gabby
    Posted at 03:58h, 10 January Reply

    Thank you for this! I have a teenager and other things do come up also. Deodorant, brushing teeth, combing hair ect.

  • Jennifer Lingle
    Posted at 16:34h, 10 January Reply

    Thank you for your feedback everyone! Greatly appreciate it! Jessica, as far as other suggestions, try the visual strategies and let me know how it goes. You could also try setting a timer and telling your daughter that she can fill up the bathtub until the timer goes off. Then she has to turn off the water. I hope this helps.

  • Monica Wells
    Posted at 02:45h, 13 May Reply

    i’ve been having a hard time just getting my autistic child just to wash his hands. it makes me feel better, that it’s not just me, it’s the autism…..

  • Bec
    Posted at 21:17h, 25 November Reply

    Trying to get my 10 year old in the bath is getting impossible. He hits me, starts wrecking house and in the end I give in…. Day 5 now, he will have to go to school and he smells, he doesn’t understand why he has to use deodorant. Not sure I can cope with my child going to school smelling :’-(. I will look into trying a social story but at moment at end of my teather. Any other tips ice violence greatfully received x

  • Christina
    Posted at 20:55h, 27 December Reply

    I love these ideas! I have 2 boys on the autism spectrum (14-y-o w/PDD-NOS/HFA (possibly AS), and 12-y-o w/”mild” ASD), plus a 9-y-o NT son. I think the task strip will prove helpful for all 3 of them, though for various reasons.
    For Theresa, regarding shampooing difficulties, I would recommend trying a no-rinse shampoo. If it’s hard to find, try asking at a beauty salon or barber shop; I get mine at Sally Beauty Supply. IMO, it works best with short &/or fine hair — didn’t work well at all with mine! — as you have to saturate the hair and lather. However, not needing to actually douse the hair with water (you towel out the shampoo) has made a world of difference with my 12-y-o!

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