Young people with special needs face many challenges academically, socially, and vocationally. Another area that is often challenging is grooming and personal hygiene.
For people with ASD, these difficulties can be the result of sensory integration dysfunction, deficits in executive functioning skills, or difficulty with generalizing instruction. Personal appearance is so important to social acceptance for all students and particularly for ASD students, who, with their restricted interests and activities and lack of ability to read social cues, already have a great deal of difficulty achieving social acceptance (Griffin et al, 2006). A great deal of literature is geared towards males with ASD since it is much more common in males than in females.
This article will suggest an approach for professionals to encourage good grooming and personal hygiene in females with ASD.
Research has found that sensory abnormality is very common in people with ASD (Wiggins et al, 2009). This sensitivity can lead to serious reactions to tactile stimuli. Adverse reactions to temperature changes can make showering or bathing difficult. This can lead to avoidance behavior such as running the water in the shower so that it seems that they have showered. Flossing and brushing teeth, hair brushing, and shaving are all activities that can bombard the senses. Perceptual and coordination difficulties can make washing, brushing hair, or applying makeup difficult and sometimes unpleasant. Grooming and personal hygiene can become a source of great anxiety.
Scheduling time to shower, style hair, apply makeup – these activities of daily living require an attention to detail that can be extremely difficult given the documented deficits in executive functioning that individuals with ASD must deal with (Happe, Booth, Charlton and Hughs, 2006). All these skills are in play whether preparing for school or work and are necessary to maintain an acceptable appearance.
Grooming and personal hygiene skills can be taught by parents and teachers and practiced with students. But another aspect of ASD is an inability to generalize instruction and carry it over for use in daily life. In order to encourage generalization of these skills, individuals with ASD need to know why these skills are relevant to them and need to be offered opportunities to practice these skills in a variety of settings. (Myles and Simpson, 2003) To provide a rationale for achieving success with grooming and personal hygiene, students should be taught the importance of these skills in all aspects of their lives – from making a good impression on the job and in the classroom to understanding the negative social repercussions of neglecting their hygiene and appearance.
Encouraging Good Grooming:
In order to practice these skills in a variety of settings, encouraging good grooming and hygiene skills can be approached as a group activity by creating a “Spa Day” opportunity for female students with ASD. The atmosphere should be peaceful and soothing like a typical spa setting. Soothing music playing softly in the background, soft lighting, the gentle sound of a small water feature adds to a calm and serene atmosphere, which will encourage students with sensory issues to participate. Set up tables with makeup mirrors and hygiene products for each student. Small groups of students with a staff person at each table will afford the students a social experience with peers and the encouragement and instruction of a staff person will facilitate the learning process.
Step by step, staff can model how to use skin cleansing and moisturizing products and encourage the students to try. Strips for tightening the pores of the nose can be presented and will provide a great photo opportunity for the adventurous in the group. Yoga-style relaxation techniques done in between activities offer an opportunity for any reticent students to relax and de-stress. Once the skin is prepared, techniques for applying simple makeup – eye shadow, mascara and lipstick – can be demonstrated and practiced. Give the students an opportunity to choose their favorite shades of eye shadow and lipstick. Staff members should encourage interaction between the students, offering each other encouragement and admiring each other’s “new looks.” Staff participation and interaction with the students has an added benefit – the students will enjoy seeing staff members “letting their hair down.”
At the conclusion of the Spa Day activities, give the students gift bags with samples of the products they’ve used. Ask for suggestions for future Spa Day activities. Door prizes are a fun idea – perhaps gift certificates for a local salon. These activities can be replicated at home with friends during a sleepover which could be followed by a visit to a salon for manicures.
Providing a Spa Day experience for students offers an opportunity to present important information about grooming and personal hygiene in a pleasant, stress-free way. For some students, this may be the first time they have had the opportunity to experience some “girl time” and it may encourage further social interaction.
For some, it may be the first time they have thought of these activities as beneficial and something that they are capable of doing. For others, it can normalize the experience of going to a spa or salon to receive assistance with personal hygiene. Your efforts to encourage good hygiene and interest in appearance may be successful beyond your expectations.
Pat Cappellino, M.S., is the Director of Independent Living Services for the Vocational Independence Program at the New York Institute of Technology. The Vocational Independence Program (VIP) is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary Program (CTP). VIP is a three year post-secondary program that focuses on independent living skills, social skills development, and vocational exploration and training. VIP accepts students with a variety of neurologically-based learning disabilities, Asperger’s Syndrome and high functioning autism.
Griffin, Harold C., Griffin, Linda W., Fitch, Christine W., Albert,Veronica, Gingras, Happy. “Educational Interventions for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome.” Intervention in School and Clinic. January 2006, 41,3; Research Library, pg. 150.
Happe, Francesca, Booth, Rhonda, Charlton, Rebecca, Hughes, Claire. “Executive function Deficits in ASD and ADHA Disorder – Examining Profiles Across Domains and Ages.”Brain and Cognition, Volume 61, Issue 1, June 2006, pages 25-39.
Myles and Simpson, 2003, as cited in “Asperger’s Syndrome-a Guide for Professionals and Families.” Issues in Children’s and Families’ Lives edited by DuCharme, Raymond W., and Gullotta, Thomas P, page 23.
Wiggins, Lisa D., Robins, Diana L., Bakeman, Roger, Adamson, Lauren B., “Brief report: Sensory Abnormalities as Distinguishing Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Young Children.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Published online, March 13, 2009.
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This post originally appeared on our July/August 2012 Magazine