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How To Teach Handwashing & Showering To Kids With Autism

baby taking bath and douche

Written by: Joshua Sleeper

Handwashing, bathing, and showering are important life skills for all children to master. All children likely need modeling, prompting, and reinforcement to be able to successfully perform these skills, but children with autism may need extra support. Ashley Osbun, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Trumpet, shares what parents should know about teaching hand washing and showering to individuals with autism.

Related: A Parent’s Guide To Toilet Training A Child With Autism

What Age Should Individuals With Autism Start Learning Handwashing And Bathing Skills?

Generally, children can start learning how to wash their hands around the age of 2. However, before jumping into teaching, your Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy team will assess if your child has the prerequisite fine motor skills. If your child doesn’t have the motor skills to pick things up, push down a soap dispenser, and rub soap on their hands, your therapy team will work on building those first. Once fine motor skills are developed, your team will recommend teaching handwashing. Since many of the same skills are required for handwashing and showering, children should master handwashing before they start learning how to shower and bathe.

Using Evidence-Based Methods To Teach Hygiene to Children with Autism

At Trumpet, we rely on evidence-based ABA strategies and methods to motivate children with autism to learn new things and play with purpose. When we’re preparing to teach an independent living skill like handwashing, we’ll identify what motivates and engages your child first. Whether your child is motivated by a certain toy, game, or a cuddle from you, we’ll use this knowledge to get your child excited about learning and practicing their new skill.

Breaking It Down

To help your child stay motivated and celebrate small successes, we’ll break a skill like handwashing down into small tasks using a method called chaining. With assistance, prompting, and modeling, we’ll start with a small step, like turning on the water or pumping the soap. This helps your child feel successful and build their confidence. At the beginning, we provide lots of assistance, including hand over hand modeling. Over time, we’ll slowly decrease the level of assistance we provide as your child gains confidence. By slowly giving your child more responsibility, our ultimate goal will be to help your child wash their hands independently.

Tips For Teaching Children With Autism To Shower Independently

Our strategy for teaching children to shower or bathe is similar to how we’d teach handwashing. By breaking down the skill into small steps, we’ll slowly build up your child’s confidence and skills. However, learning showering and bathing can be a little more intimidating than learning handwashing, so we use some special strategies:

Make It Fun

A bathroom (and especially a shower) can be a scary place. The bathroom tends to be a more sterile environment than most other rooms, and many have bright lights. On top of these considerations, a shower is an enclosed area – which, for many individuals with autism, can be uncomfortable or overwhelming. The first step to successfully showering is helping your child feel comfortable in the bathroom and the shower. Consider swapping in softer lights, replacing your shower curtain with a more inviting, kid-friendly version, or letting your child bring a fun, water-proof toy into the shower with them. These small changes can help your child feel more comfortable in the shower and set them up for success when it comes to learning how to bathe.

Talk With Your Therapy Team

Showering is very personal, and Trumpet offers specialized parent education and training to give you the confidence to support your child in the shower. Your therapy team will create an individualized plan that helps you understand how to model for your child, provide direct assistance, and how and when to slowly decrease assistance as your child becomes more independent in their personal hygiene.

Celebrate Every Step Towards Success

Learning a new skill is a process, and to keep your child motivated, it’s important to celebrate each mini step, even if it doesn’t look exactly perfect. For example, if your child is learning to wash their hair, celebrate when they run shampoo through their hair or over their head, even if it’s not super thorough. The idea is to get your child used to the gesture and motivated to keep trying. Over time and through refined practice, you and your therapy team can “shape” the gesture into a more thorough cleaning.

Overcoming Common Challenges To Showering & Handwashing

Every family is different, and your Trumpet team will work with you to overcome the unique challenges you’re facing. However, there are some common issues we help families overcome, including:

Mobility Issues

When we teach a new skill, we assess if your child has the motor skills to perform it. Some individuals may not have developed the ability to move their arms and hands in a certain way yet. In these cases, it’s important to develop motor and movement before teaching the skill to avoid frustrating your child. We’ll often partner with occupational therapists or other autism professionals to build your child’s foundational skills.

Sensory Overload

Many children with autism experience sensory issues. When it comes to showering, sensory sensitivities can become overwhelming – some individuals may feel every water drop hitting them or be uncomfortable with the lights or noises from the shower. If your child has sensory sensitivities, our team will work to better understand what’s overwhelming your child. Is it a sound? The lights? A feeling? All of the above?

Once we’ve established what’s causing your child to feel overwhelmed, we’ll take an individualized approach to help your child feel more comfortable in the bathroom. For example, some children may want shower toys or a towel with a different texture. Older individuals may prefer soft music during their shower, a shower chair, or a stool to sit on while bathing. By incorporating the individual’s preferences and needs, your therapy team can help your child gain confidence and be more comfortable in the bathroom.

Generalizing Behaviors

So your child has mastered showering at home, but now they’re spending the night at grandma’s house and refuse to even enter the bathroom? This is a common issue many families affected by autism experience. To help your child with autism be successful with personal hygiene in many environments, it’s important to start slow. Even if they’ve mastered showering at home, you’ll need to start from the beginning in a new environment. For example, if your child needed to practice standing in the shower for a while before they were comfortable with turning the water on, start from that same step at grandma’s house. By going back to the basics, you’ll slowly build mastery in several environments.

Trumpet Behavioral Health excels at teaching hygiene skills like showering, handwashing, toilet training, and more. We’re here to support you throughout the process and make it easier for your child to be clean, healthy, and safe in every environment.

 

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