Winning the War on Grooming – Putting Healthy Habits into Place
By Shannon Flynn –
Do you feel like you’re going into battle every time you remind your teen that it’s, yet again, time to take a shower? Do you cringe just thinking about the confrontation that will come when you ask them, again, to brush their teeth?
You’re not alone. Grooming is one of the daily struggles faced by many parents of children with autism. It becomes a new challenge during the teen years, a time when you want to encourage independence in many areas of their life, including grooming.
Whether you’re facing outright opposition or something more like apathy, here are some tips and tricks that can help you win the war on grooming.
Identifying the Reasons
Your teen’s struggle with grooming is likely caused by: sensory issues and/or difficulty understanding social cues. The first step in helping your teen improve their hygiene is to figure out why they’re having problems with grooming in the first place.
Some teens might avoid grooming because they don’t like the sensory sensations associated with it. Think about it. There’s water splashing them in the shower, strongly scented products assaulting their senses, and devices like toothbrushes and razors being crammed in their face. Your teen could be experiencing sensory overload.
Other teens might not understand or care about the social pressure to look groomed. Teens with autism have trouble reading and understanding social cues, so they might not understand that they need to groom to fit in.
Be Sensitive to Sensory Issues
If you think that sensory issues are the culprit, the most important thing you can do is be understanding and empathetic. “Our kids [with autism] have some sensory differences,” says Erin Moran, Psy.D., clinical psychologist with the Portland Autism Center. Their sensory issues are real and can be overwhelming.
A person with autism has a nervous system that’s on high alert, so their brain has trouble interpreting sensory input. Some people might struggle with touch, while others struggle with sounds or scents. Your first step is to talk to your teen and find out what’s bothering them. After you find what’s wrong, then you can start finding solutions.
If your teen says that they don’t like the splashing water in the shower, there are several things they can try. They can wear goggles in the shower so the water doesn’t splash in their eyes. They can also try taking a bath instead, so they can avoid the splashing water altogether.
Taking a bath can also be a good solution if your teen says that they feel unstable standing in the shower. Some people with autism have problems with vestibular system functioning, which can cause balance problems. If balance is a problem and your teen still wants to take a shower, another option is to buy them a shower chair.
Maybe your teen tells you that they don’t like how their grooming products smell or feel. This is an issue that can be remedied by letting your teen pick out products they like. For example, your teen might try a mild-flavored toothpaste and unscented, stick deodorant, or what Dr. Moran calls “the least punishing” products.
Understand Struggles with Social Cues
Maybe your teen’s grooming difficulties stem from trouble understanding social cues. People with autism have trouble understanding social cues and seeing things from another person’s perspective. “They just don’t notice what other people notice,” says John A. Green, III, MD, founder of the Evergreen Center in Oregon City. The best way to deal with this issue is to help them understand social norms.
Start by explaining to your teen that our society frowns upon body odor, messy hair, and bad breath. You can tell them that their peers and members of the opposite sex will find them much more approachable if they maintain a clean and groomed appearance.
You might also consider finding a social skills group for your teen. This can help them understand subtle non-verbal cues and, in turn, understand when people aren’t satisfied with their level of grooming. Brooke Psychologists in Portland is one office that offers social skills groups for teens. “There should be no shame in asking for help to create a village for your child,” says Dr. Moran.
Set Expectations but Be Flexible
Regardless of why your teen is struggling with grooming, it’s important to let them know your expectations about grooming and the consequences for not meeting them. For example, explain to your teen that you don’t want them to smell bad, so you expect them to take a shower every day and they can’t play video games until they do.
This might be difficult at first, but most teens with autism will follow the rules if they understand the consequences. However, expectations and consequences may have to be explained several times.
While you’re setting your expectations, you should keep in mind the importance of being flexible. You should decide ahead of time what grooming tasks are negotiable and non-negotiable. You might say that your teen should brush their teeth twice a day, but decide that they can wash their hair every other day. You need to pick your battles. This is a principle that will help you win the war on grooming.