Hygiene Hacks for Autistic Teens and Young Adults
One of the questions I’m asked most often by parents of autistic teenagers and young adults is how to get their kids to maintain proper hygiene. It’s not that autistic people are dirtier than others, but teens and young adults may refuse some aspects of personal hygiene due to sensory aversions, lack of interest, or just not seeing the point of it. To those parents, I offer this revolutionary idea: they don’t have to do hygiene the same way you do – they just have to get clean. If your autistic kids can’t keep up the hygiene routine that you want them to, give them one that they can maintain. And for any autistic adults who may struggle with certain aspects of hygiene, there are some hacks in here for you, too.
First and foremost, parents, don’t make hygiene such a fight. Right now, with people staying at home so much, almost everyone has gotten a bit lax in their personal habits. But most school-age kids know that other kids stay away from them, or that they get made fun of for being smelly, etc. If you think your kids don’t know that they smell, make them sniff their nasty t-shirts after they’ve been wearing them for a few days (normally, I would never condone any kind of sensory punishment like that, but this is a one-time thing to make a point). If necessary, forego all that and simply make it a house rule that everyone in the house must bathe/brush teeth/etc. every day – then give them ways to make it accessible to them.
Lots of autistic people hate being wet or hate getting water in their faces, so a bath or a shower might be too unpleasant for them to do regularly. This does not mean that they can’t be clean. There are always options!
I would like to remind you that, for centuries, people washed standing up, using a cloth or a sponge and water from a wash basin. You can still get clean and non-smelly that way today! A sink, a little soap, and a washcloth is all you really need as long as you make sure to clean everything.
This is also a good option for people who hate being fully naked. You can wash your top half, cover up, then wash your bottom half and cover that, or wash in a loose nightgown or oversized t-shirt where you can reach everything that needs cleaning without having to get undressed.
Some autistic people have a soap aversion, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not necessarily about using soap. It could be about the smell, or the texture of the lather, or about how it makes their skin feel after bathing, or the fact that over-dried or over-moisturized skin after a bath makes everything they touch feel weird and causes texture issues until their skin gets back to normal.
Take the time to find a GoodSmell soap that makes their skin feel good and doesn’t mess with their tactile perception and it will all go easier – you might even find that the whole bathing issue goes away.
If push comes to shove, turn to a marvel of our 21st century – shower wipes. You can find these online marketed as “gym bag essentials”, among camping supplies, or as daily living aids in drugstores. They’re not the greatest option and using them exclusively will definitely run into money, but these wipes are designed to get you un-nastified when you’re grimy from a workout or such without using any water. If you’re facing a water or soap aversion that serious, this option will keep you clean without a fuss.
To solve the water-in-the-face issue when washing hair, look to some of the creative solutions people have come up with for toddlers, like swimming goggles or visors. When I had LASIK, I had to wear tight wraparound sunglasses in the shower with tape across the top on my forehead to make sure absolutely no water got into my eyes. For most people, I think just the wraparound sunglasses plus taking a little care would do the trick.
If there’s an issue with liquid shampoo, similar to soap aversion, there are options for that, too! Shampoo bars are available that feel much like bar soap and many of them are less heavily scented than liquid shampoos. Dry shampoo used every couple of days can cut down the need for a real wash to once every 7-10 days, depending on how much oil and buildup your hair produces. And believe it or not, shampoo wipes are also a thing! You’ll find them along with the shower wipes, often marketed as a post-workout alternative to a full shower and shampoo. I don’t know for sure if you can stop washing your hair forever with those, but they could definitely buy you time between washes in case you or your child really can’t stand hair washing.
Teeth Brushing and Flossing
This has got to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for autistic kids, adults, and parents. Oral aversion is a real thing! Stuff touching our teeth or just being in our mouths can be truly awful for us. But we do have to take care of our teeth, so here’s what I can recommend.
First, I believe that dental floss is the devil’s string. It’s hard to control, it requires putting hands way back into my mouth, sometimes making me gag, it hurts my gums, it doesn’t seem to do much good, and I’ve even pulled out a few fillings with floss! So I say to hell with dental floss – I use a Waterpik. Yes, it still involves putting something in my mouth and the shooting water took some getting used to. But my Waterpik is easier to control and is more effective than floss even if I’m still not great at using it. It hurt a little bit until I got used to it (and my gums got healthier), but now I wouldn’t be without it.
An electric toothbrush is an autistic person’s best friend and I’ll tell you why. Electric toothbrushes have timers, so you know when to move to a new section, and when it shuts off, you’ve brushed long enough. The movement and/or vibrations compensate for any lack of dexterity, so even if you can’t control the brush well, you’ll still get a good clean (all those lectures about little circles or up and down movements couldn’t help the fact that I couldn’t control my hand well enough to make it happen). I’ve even seen a new form of electric toothbrush that looks almost like a retainer – it’s designed to hit all surfaces of top and bottom teeth at once, then you turn it on and it runs for about 30 seconds and then you’re done. It sounds fantastic, if it works as advertised.
One more note – Waterpik has recently introduced an all-in-one water flosser and sonic toothbrush, so you can combine it all into one step. The price is still about $200 as of this writing, but if it gets closer to $100, I might jump on that!
Toothpaste and Mouthwash
I know this is a big thing for a lot of people because it’s something I mentioned in passing when I talked about not gaslighting autistic kids and I got multiple comments on it. So many oral care products are strongly flavored with mint and it bothers a lot of us! So look for anything that isn’t mint or cinnamon flavored. Many people use kids’ toothpaste and mouthwash just because it’s easier on the mouth. Unless you have specific oral health concerns like sensitivity or serious gum disease, it’s usually just as good as anything else. You can find fruit-flavored or even unflavored toothpastes online, although I’ve never seen them in stores around me. And there’s no shame in telling your dentist that you can’t handle all the minty stuff and asking for alternatives; they should be willing and able to help.
Don’t let hygiene be a constant fight – just make it accessible. Like anything else, with the right accommodations, autistic people can handle personal hygiene just fine. Allow them to do it in a way that works for them, whether or not it’s the way you would do it yourself.
Do you have any hygiene hacks to share? Have you tried that new whole-mouth toothbrush, can you give any report on how it works? What have you found works best for keeping water out of the face or eyes?