Battles over hygiene are almost universal for kids with autism and their parents. Your goal as a parent, though, is to help your child become as independent as possible in the real world, and managing hygiene is part of that journey. Make some concessions for your teen, but set high standards as well.
Kids with autism often resist hygiene tasks for a variety of reasons. First, many kids who have autism don't feel the social pressure to conform to our cultural grooming expectations. They simply don't care and they're not bothered by shaggy hair or wrinkled clothes. Many kids with autism also have sensory sensitivities that can make grooming tasks downright challenging or even painful. Splashing water, highly scented products or even a razor or toothbrush can put your child into sensory overload. Kids with autism often have problems with organizational skills, so the morning rush of getting ready for school can seem excruciating. Remembering to brush teeth or comb hair just seems like too big a hassle, according to Michael Powers, co-author of "Asperger Syndrome & Your Child: A Parent's Guide."
Whether your child is interested in social interactions or not, he probably isn't reading the cues of social acceptance that come naturally to most kids. You might have to directly teach him that in our culture, body odor is unacceptable. Fuzzy teeth are a big turn-off. Taking care of daily grooming tasks means that peers and adults will find him more approachable. For the child who doesn't care about social interactions, you'll have to find another motivator, such as gaining privileges. You might simply have to say, "When you don't take a shower, you smell bad. Other people don't like it. As part of your day, you have to take a shower. No computer time until you shower." You might also talk about the health benefits of daily grooming. Find a photo of a mouth full of tooth decay so your child understands the potential ill effects of not grooming. Usually kids with autism will comply with rules once they truly understand the consequences, but gaining that understanding sometimes takes repeated lessons.
If a lack of organizational skills is at the root of your child's disinterest in grooming, use some visual reminders to keep her on track. Most kids with autism use some type of visual schedule or to-do list. Add grooming tasks to this list. You might include details such as brushing teeth, tying shoes, putting on a belt or combing hair. A photo of someone neatly groomed and ready for the day can help your child understand your expectations. You might also need to make a chart or list of which clothing is acceptable for which situation, along with which clothes match.
Address Sensory Issues
Understanding and empathizing with your teen's sensory challenges will go a long way in gaining her trust and cooperation. Talk with your teen to learn which areas are difficult. Then look for solutions. Maybe your teen can wear goggles in the shower or take a bath instead, suggests Ellen Notbohm, co-author of "1001 Great Ideas for Teaching & Raising Children with Autism or Asperger's." Let your teen help choose grooming products based on tolerable scents and textures. Most teens with autism dislike getting their hair cut. Perhaps you can learn to cut hair at home or find a hairdresser who is sensitive to your teen's needs. Schedule appointments for quiet times of the day and try to visit when your teen is well rested. Videos or other distractions can make hair cuts less painful for both you and your teen.
Compromise and Support
You and your teen have enough challenges without making personal hygiene a battleground. Determine the non-negotiables, such as brushing teeth, showering and using deodorant daily. Then, think about a few areas that you can be flexible on. Your son's longer hair or beard probably isn't the end of the world. If you're tired of playing the toothbrush guard, perhaps it's time to enlist the help of a mentor or counselor. Sometimes hygiene rules can be taught as part of a school or mentoring session.