Autism: Keeping Ourselves Clean and Following the Rules of Basic Hygiene

Autism/Asperger’s affects our lives in a great number of ways.  Some are very obvious and others obscure.  Keeping ourselves clean and hygienic is one area that doesn’t initially seem to link with autism, but when it is given some thought it certainly is.

Problems we face

There are three main factors that prevent people like us, with autism/Asperger’s, from keeping clean and hygienic.  These are: 

  • Being too tired to keep up with the rigours of daily life.
  • Fitting it into our busy schedules (especially when we are on a mission to achieve something).
  • Having sensory overload issues, mainly in the areas of touch and smell.

Being too tired to keep clean

Although we have always been autistic (Asperger’s), so we really don’t know what it is like to be normal, life is tough for us.  Often doing our everyday jobs or studying takes so much of our energy that we are left too tired to follow a good hygiene schedule.  I have certainly had periods like this when was in my early teens. Instead of having daily showers I would often have a weekly bath (or twice weekly at best).  At this time, I would also brush my teeth daily instead of twice a day.  This only really changed when I had bad acne in my later teens. 

Being too busy to keep clean

There are times in our lives when we feel we’re too busy to wash properly.  I’ve had times in my early twenties, when I was studying at uni, that I would simply be too busy to follow the correct hygiene rules.  These rules included: having a daily shower, daily shave or cutting my nails when they were too long.  When I had to attend University I would wear clean clothes and have a shower.  But there were many periods such as home study days, weekends and holiday periods where I could stay at home and work.  On these days I rarely had a shower.  I was really driven and determined that I spent every waking hour getting grade As in all of my subjects.  Everything else, such as keeping clean and wearing clean clothes, didn’t matter.  I feel this extreme level of commitment and focus is a positive trait of autism/asperger’s but we can sacrifice too much sometimes.  

Sensory overload issues with keeping clean

I am at the highest functioning end of the autistic spectrum.  Which means autism still greatly affects me and my life, but not as much as someone at a lower end.  That being said, I still find many aspects of keeping myself clean very uncomfortable. For a person who has greater sensory issues, it must be unbearable.  I know some people will read this who are not autistic.  For you it would almost impossible to comprehend why it’s so uncomfortable or even unbearable.  You may think to yourself: How can a light touch hurt a person?  How can something that smells so mild and pleasant to me, be so overbearing and disgusting to someone else? Why does a shower gel that is certified as sensitive and it is so soft and mild on my skin, cause my son/daughter/partner to feel that it burns their skin and causes them to have rashes? But as I am autistic I know that all these things are true as I am affected by them.

Showering and Bathing

I have a shower most days but I hate the shower.  Literally hate it.  We have quite a weak electric shower, but it causes me a great deal of discomfort.  I hate the feel of the water hitting my skin. One light touch feels unbearable, so to have this repeated all over my body for several minutes is exceptionally intolerable.  But because I do it so often I have become used to it.  I often dread going into the shower, so have one as soon as I wake up. By doing this I can stop thinking about it and get on with the rest of my day worry free.

When I have had my shower I feel relieved and feel better for the rest of the day, as being clean does feel good.  In a perfect world I would have a bath every day, as I prefer them a great deal more, but it takes up too much time, effort, water and energy to do this frequently.  

There are many other aspects of having a shower or a bath that are difficult for people like us with autism/Asperger’s including:

  • The strong (and sometime quite vile) smell of shower gel, soaps and shampoos. 
  • As our skin are so sensitive many toiletries cause our skins to burn, become blotchy or develop a rash.  It can be very difficult to find products that are sensitive enough for our skins.
  • The transition from hot to cold or wet to dry is extremely uncomfortable for us.  Hence the reason why many of us put up a fight, when we are children, to go into the bath but once we are in there we refuse to get out again.

Other Hygiene Issues

There is a great deal of other difficulties we face on a daily basis when it comes to basic hygiene including:

  • Not wanting to use deodorant because of: the uncomfortable feeling of first putting it on which can tickle or surprise us, the smell, and the fact our skins can be sensitive to it causes rashes etc.
  • Not wanting to brush our teeth as it feels too uncomfortable.
  • Hating the feeling of a brush (or comb) so refusing to have our hair brushed.
  • Only wearing a certain set of clothing, as they are the only ones we feel comfortable in.  Because of this they become too dirty and smelly, often without us realising.
  • Hating hairs cut.  For reasons such as 
    • The deeply uncomfortable light touches and strokes on our head from the hair dresser/barber.
    • The vibrations of the electric shaver.
    • Having to make small talk with a stranger throughout this unpleasant experience.  
    • The distracting background noise of other people talking or music playing. 
    • In many salons overly bright artificial lights. 

I always dread going to the barbers and I would rank it as one of my most stressful experiences.  Although I do like the feeling when I’ve had the haircut and I look much smarter.   

Why we need to keep clean and hygienic

Many of us with autism/Asperger’s don’t fully understand why we need to keep clean and smell nice.  We are happy as we are and don’t feel the need to change it.  We aren’t aware of how this affects us socially and don’t pick up on the social cues people give us when we don’t meet their expectations of proper self-hygiene.

As you get older you really do start to realise how important it is to fit in the best you can. Keeping clean, smart and presentable means you present yourself at your best rather than your worst.  Impacting your life in many ways such as having more people willing to be your friend, attracting the opposite sex if your single, getting a job or promotion and not having people talk about you behind your back. Basically it can be the difference between fitting into society and not.  Even though aspects of it are extremely uncomfortable, and even painful, it has to be done to at least a reasonable level.  

Would you be willing to have a friend that smells of really bad body odour, wears old tatty creased and dirty clothes, has bad breath and brown teeth from not brushing, doesn’t shave or tidy up their facial hair or hair on their heads so it become dirty and tangled etc.  I personally could see past most of these things, and see the nice person beneath it all, but as I’m so sensitive to smells I would still find it difficult to spend a great deal of time with a person like this.

Keeping too clean

As well as not keeping clean enough there are times in our lives when we may keep too clean.  Such as constantly washing our hands to keep free of germs, having several showers a day or washing our faces too many times.

In my late teens I had really bad acne and thought the problem was dirt getting into the pours of my skin.  So I would wash my face several times a day (sometime up to 10 times) for a few years. I would use special spot soap (called Clearasil face wash, which I still use today) and high strength spot cream. 

Of course this over washing did not make my acne/spots better but much worse.  Later I realised that washing once a day is more than enough. Mainly due to the fact that washing is abrasive to the skin and it needs to repair and our body produces oils that our skin needs.  This helped, but of course did not stop my acne.  It got so bad I went to the doctors who saw how bad it was and heard the things I tried.  He gave me some antibiotic tablets which I took religiously for several months and it was like a miracle cure for me, as my acne disappeared and I’ve not had bad acne since.  Just an occasion spot now and again.

What can be done to help

There are a number of things that can be done to make self personal hygiene a more pleasurable experience. Including:

  • When you have more time, having a bath instead of a shower.  Or having a bath at night (when you have more time) instead of a shower in the morning.
  • Having a rest from showering or bathing once a week like at the weekend.  
  • Showering/bathing once every couple of days if your off work or school.
  • Growing a beard so you don’t have to shave daily (which is what I’ve done).  Remembering that you should still keep it looking smart by trimming it once a week/fortnight.  In addition to tidying up the hairs around your neck and lips once every few days.
  • Using very mild toiletries that are fragrance free or have a mild smell that you can tolerate.
  • Wearing goggles if you’re young and scared of getting soap in your eyes.
  • Making showers part of your daily routine.  As we are autistic we love/need routines.  This is the way I make sure I shower often enough.  I will have a set of jobs I follow in order each morning without fail when I am at work. Showering and brushing my teeth is part of this routine.
  • If you shave buying a good quality electric shaver like Braun.  It makes shaving much more comfortable and less stressful than using a disposable one with cream.
  • Buying an electric toothbrush.  Which makes brushing teeth much easier and more comfortable.
  • If you have certain clothing you really like buy them in multiples (perhaps in different colours) so you can wash one whilst wearing the other.
  • Finding a barber that you feel comfortable going to.  It may take a long time to do this, and a lot of trial and error, but it is worth it in the end.  For me personally I like going to Turkish barbers now as a male cuts my hair (as they tend to be a bit firmer and stroke your head less often), many of them don’t make small talk as their English may not be very good and, if you find the right place, are absolutely brilliant at cutting hair.
  • Some people find other ways of totally avoiding hairdressers such as cutting or shaving their own hair (I did this for a couple of years, but I look much better when it is professionally done).  Or growing your hair long, so you don’t have to get it cut very often.  I tried this but my hairstyle looked awful when it was at a medium length so I had to abandon that idea.

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