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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

Personal Hygiene Advice for Autistic Adults

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


Good hygiene is a fundamental aspect of life, influencing not only our health but also how we interact with others and feel about ourselves. It's a daily practice that blends self-care with social etiquette. However, many autistic individuals face numerous challenges when trying to achieve effective personal hygiene.

A photo of a bathroom with dark brown cabinets and a shower with a glass door.

Some of these challenges include heightened sensory sensitivities, executive functioning challenges, and a deep-rooted preference for established routines. These factors can influence their approach to personal care tasks. Recognizing and navigating these challenges is important for developing strong hygiene practices.


In this blog post, I will cover why hygiene is difficult for some autistic individuals, where those difficulties crop up, and some strategies for overcoming those challenges. I aim to transform these essential tasks from daunting to doable, focusing not just on cleanliness but on promoting a sense of independence and empowerment. 


I will explore strategies from establishing comforting routines to selecting the right products, all designed to make the world of hygiene more accessible and less intimidating for autistic individuals. My goal is to empower you to embrace hygiene practices with confidence and ease, making it an integral, manageable part of your daily life.


Why Hygiene is Difficult for Some Autistic Individuals

For many autistic individuals, some of the challenges they face in their daily lives also crop up when needing to perform personal hygiene tasks. Here are some of those challenges. 


Two towels hanging on hooks above a bathtub.

Sensitivity to Sensory Inputs

Many autistic individuals experience heightened sensitivities to certain physical sensations. For example, the sensation of water can be overwhelming because of its unpredictable nature and varying temperatures. Likewise, the feeling of toothbrush bristles against the gums can be harsh. Many autistic individuals also often perceive the texture of towels as abrasive or overly stimulating. The latter example means that, to some autistic individuals, drying off after a bath or shower is an uncomfortable experience.


Motor Skill Challenges

For some autistic individuals, performing hygiene tasks that demand fine motor skills can be difficult. Tasks like brushing teeth, combing hair, or clipping nails require a level of dexterity and coordination that might not come naturally to them. This can lead to struggles with effectively completing those tasks. The precision needed for tasks like flossing or handling small buttons on clothing can also be daunting.


Executive Functioning Difficulties

The cognitive aspects of autism can affect one's ability to sequence and remember the steps involved in various hygiene activities. For example, they might forget to brush their teeth before bed or struggle to understand the order of tasks required for a shower. Beyond just forgetting steps, prioritizing these tasks can also be a hurdle. Deciding whether to wash their hair first or to brush their teeth may not come intuitively, leading to confusion or frustration.


Dislike of Certain Textures or Temperatures

For some autistic individuals, using everyday hygiene products such as soaps, shampoos, or lotions can pose some challenges. The texture of these products, whether too slimy, gritty, or creamy, can provoke discomfort because of heightened sensory sensitivities. Products that feel too warm or too cold on the skin can also be problematic.


Where Are These Challenges Experienced?

Now that we know why many autistic individuals experience problems related to personal hygiene, let’s explore the places these challenges typically crop up.


A woman brushing her hair gently.

Hair Care

Many autistic individuals encounter discomfort during hair brushing or washing because of heightened scalp sensitivity. This sensitivity can make the sensation of a brush or comb through the hair feel painful or overly stimulating. Similarly, the process of washing hair, with the combination of water pressure, temperature fluctuations, and the tactile sensation of shampoo and conditioner, can be distressing. Some may also have an aversion to the sensation of hair in general or wet hair specifically. These experiences can transform routine grooming activities into challenging tasks.


Oral Hygiene

Many autistic individuals experience discomfort while brushing their teeth. This challenge is often attributed to taste, texture, or mouth sensitivity. The taste of toothpaste, which can range from minty to fruity, can be too intense or unpleasant for those with heightened taste sensitivities. Additionally, the texture of toothpaste, whether it's gritty, foamy, or gel-like, can also be unsettling. Furthermore, the sensation of a toothbrush in the mouth, coupled with the need to apply a certain amount of pressure while brushing, can be difficult for those with oral sensitivities.


Water Sensations

Many autistic individuals find the sensation of water on their skin to be overwhelming when bathing. This can be because of the water’s temperature, the pressure from the showerhead, or simply the feeling of water touching their skin. For some, this sensation can feel too intense or unpredictable, which turns taking a bath or shower into a stressful experience.


Body Odor

A man using spray-on deodorant to avoid the sensation of regular deodorant.

Sensitivity to deodorant scent and chemical composition can also present issues. The strong scents in many deodorants can be too much for people with a strong sense of smell. Additionally, the skin's reaction to certain ingredients in deodorants, like aluminum or alcohol, can cause irritation or allergic responses.


Grooming and Appearance

For some autistic individuals, tasks like shaving or nail clipping can be difficult. These tasks require a level of fine motor control and sensory processing that can be challenging. Shaving involves not only the dexterity to safely maneuver a razor but also the tolerance of the tactile sensation of the blade against the skin. Nail clipping also demands precision and can be uncomfortable because of the pressure and sensation it creates on the fingers or toes. Additionally, the sound of the clipper can be unsettling for some.


Advice for Overcoming Personal Hygiene Challenges

Now that we have a baseline for what personal hygiene-related challenges autistic individuals face and where they crop up, it’s time for advice on how to overcome those challenges. The following section lists advice for what autistic individuals can do to improve their personal hygiene.


Use Sensory-Friendly Products

For starters, carefully select hygiene products that minimize discomfort. Products like unscented soaps help because they don't have strong smells that can be too much for autistic individuals with an overresponsive sense of smell. 


Teeth brushing is a sensory minefield. Similarly, soft-bristled toothbrushes can provide more gentle oral care, preventing the harsh sensation that regular toothbrushes might cause. We have detailed options on this topic in the blog post here.


Hair washing is another chore that can trigger sensory issues. If water hitting your head or skin is an issue, or the texture of wet hair repulsive to you, you can try dry shampoos or even a an ingenious no-rinse shampoo cap like this one here. If you're not sure how to use these, just Google it!


Lastly, choosing towels and washcloths made from non-irritating, soft fabrics can enhance comfort during and after bathing.


Find Products with Acceptable Textures

Texture is a frequent offender when it comes to successful personal hygiene. Fortunately, there are many options available. Try experimenting with various brands or types of soaps, shampoos, and lotions to discover which ones have textures that are comfortable to use and have a more pleasing texture.


A bath set-up made to help make bathing a better experience for an autistic individual.

Create a Hygiene Routine

Having a routine or an order in which you do personal hygiene tasks is something that works well for many autistic individuals. It has the benefit of helping you remember tasks since you do the same thing each time and functions kind of like habit stacking, an executive functioning hack that helps you create new habits by connecting the new habit to an old one. 


If you’re struggling to get started, try incorporating other executive functioning tools such as scheduling time to do personal hygiene or creating a checklist on paper or in your phone, which can be a great visual outline of each step in the routine. Checklists also have the added bonus of creating a sense of accomplishment as each task is checked off.


Use Adaptive Tools

If you struggle with fine or gross motor challenges, you can try using tools that may make the tasks easier. For example, electric toothbrushes may be helpful since they require less manual dexterity to operate and provide more efficient cleaning compared to traditional toothbrushes. Long-handled sponges or scrubbers can aid in bathing and may even provide a sensory sensation that you find pleasurable. Additionally, no-rinse cleansing products such as dry shampoo or baby wipes can be a practical alternative for anyone finding the process of rinsing and drying to be cumbersome.


Use Desensitization Techniques

Get used to the different feelings and sensations of hygiene tasks slowly. For example, the feel of water, which can vary in temperature and pressure, might initially be uncomfortable or overwhelming. Introducing water in a controlled manner, perhaps starting with light splashes or using a damp cloth before progressing to a full shower, can help you adjust to it slowly over time if you have complete control over the exposure to the sensation.


Bath scrubbers and towels hanging up to dry.

Conclusion

Mastering personal hygiene for autistic individuals is about creating a harmonious balance between consistency and adaptability. By understanding and respecting your sensory needs, working to overcome any executive functioning challenges, and gradually integrating new habits, the path to effective hygiene can be both empowering and transformative.


The strategies I've discussed, from establishing routines to selecting the right products, are steps toward making hygiene tasks more accessible and less overwhelming. Remember, the goal is not just to achieve a standard of cleanliness but to build confidence and independence.


Whether you are an autistic individual working toward mastering your own hygiene routine or a caregiver supporting someone on their path, remember that the goal is progress, not perfection. The ultimate aim is to ensure that personal hygiene is a comfortable, confident, and integral part of daily life, contributing positively to overall well-being and self-esteem.


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