Reasons for difficulty with personal hygiene

Handling any difficulty with personal hygiene can vary with age, but the cause is usually to do with sensory needs, executive functioning and how much energy you can give to a task.

If water on your skin isn’t a nice feeling, then showers are going to be a struggle. The taste of toothpaste might be too strong. Clothes become complicated when  they’re all different textures, leading to an autistic person wearing the same thing over and over.

When you struggle with executive dysfunction and energy levels, you may not be physically able to perform the task needed. You can’t put energy into something  if you have zero energy to begin with, which is why hygiene can become neglected.

The focus needs to be on being healthy enough to not be in any danger, instead of fitting in with social standards of hygiene. There are alternatives for dealing with sensory issues and lack of energy, but the key is to be patient and understanding with either yourself or the person who is struggling.

Sensory Issues

  • If the taste of toothpaste is too strong, try another flavoured toothpaste. There are companies developing fruit flavoured toothpastes to encourage people to brush their teeth more.
  • Does it feel awful to brush your teeth? Try the U shaped or three sided toothbrushes, or even a softer brush as it will help you get them brushed quickly. You can also download apps such as the Pokémon tooth brushing app, or listen to music to distract you.
  • Hair washing can be a LOT. Try dry shampoo, brush the shampoo through your hair instead of scrubbing it in or use a tangle teaser as that can provide deep pressure when washing.
  • Flannel washes are a good alternative if you can’t take a shower. You can also get bath lights, light up shower heads, shower chairs or sensory bath toys.
  • Manage your expectations: rather than push to do socially acceptable hygiene, focus on what you or the autistic person is able to do. If what can be handled is a quick wash, teeth being brushed only once and use of hand sanitiser instead of hand washing, then that is good enough and better than nothing.
  • Have a few backups of safe clothing for when one set needs washing.
  • Use PECS boards and social stories to discuss hygiene with your children ( has some great social stories for potty training and

Energy Levels

If you’ve heard of the term ‘no spoons’, in short it means that there’s no energy left to give to a task. It can feel physically impossible, especially when your body is fatigued and your brain feels like cotton wool. Planning for tasks is a good way of conserving energy, and I have tested out a few of these examples myself which helps me in daily life:

  • Store your duvet covers inside out so that when it comes to changing the bed, you just put your hands through the duvet cover, grab two corners and shake the duvet down.
  • Invest in as many energy saving devices as you can. Roombas, dishwashers and easy clean machines are expensive, but they do help a little.
  • Plan which jobs you’re going to do throughout the week and try keep it to one or two. For example I do the washing up on Tuesdays and Fridays, hoover on a Wednesday and clean the bathroom on a Saturday.
  • You are allowed to take all day doing a job! If you’re cleaning the bathroom, break the job down and just clean the sink, then the toilet etc.
    with breaks in between. A job can feel huge if you lump it all together, so start with smaller tasks.
  • Store your clothes as they are and just iron when you want to put them on.
  • Batch cook and freeze meals when you do have energy, so you can just defrost and microwave them when you don’t.
  • If you’re a parent, please don’t see your autistic child as lazy. They might not be able to communicate that they have no energy to do a chore, and so might just refuse to do it.
  • Don’t feel like a burden for asking for help. I have help with batch cooking meals, doing the laundry and washing my hair. It makes the week run smoother if you have help doing things that really zap your energy

Patience and understanding

The worst thing you can do to a person when they are struggling with hygiene is to shame them or make judgemental comments. Patience, understanding and turning it into a fun activity will really help with these difficulties and will boost an autistic person’s confidence, as if they are shamed they will want to do these things even less.

There are lots of resources out there and a lot of advice that can be given, especially if your child is in an SEN school. It is never shameful to ask for help and find new ways to cope with things, as these are stepping stones to making
life better for an autistic person.

By Luce Greenwood, autistic advocate and content writer. @coffeecupsbooks