How to Teach Good Hygiene to Special Needs Teens

By Kay Tang
Segment a hygiene task into steps for a teenager with special needs.

Rapid physical changes during adolescence may pose an even more difficult challenge for teenagers with special needs -- children requiring assistance because of intellectual, physical or emotional disabilities. A teenager with special needs may not pick up on grooming cues from his peers at a time when children grow acutely aware of appearance and fitting into social cliques. When teaching good hygiene to your teenager with special needs, factor in his particular way of learning skills and routines.

Explain Good Hygiene

Because your teenager with special needs may not comprehend the link between good hygiene and social acceptance, he may be less inclined to cultivate a pleasant appearance and smell. You may need to remind your child to shower and shave on a regular basis. Explain the value of grooming in an explicit way. For example, tell him that he’ll sweat more as he enters puberty. Because people can be turned off by the smell of sweat, he must shower daily. If your child avoids hygiene-related tasks, such as showering, ask questions about his routine to find out what disturbs him. A child with autism spectrum disorders often dislikes water pounding on his head. Guide him to use a cup to rinse shampooed hair. A child with attention deficit disorder may also be sensitive to water temperature and pressure. Install a shower-head that delivers water with different degrees of pressure.

Rely on Visual Aids

Don’t assume your teenager understands all the steps required for good hygiene. You may have to break down a hygiene routine into small steps. Write a checklist that serves as a specific guideline for grooming. Laminate the list and put it on the bathroom wall. If your teenager is a visual learner, opt to post a list of pictures that show each step of a hygiene routine. The images can even be photos of your teenager performing the grooming ritual correctly. The cap to this photo list can be a shot of your teenager well-groomed, which reinforces the goal of good hygiene. You can also place two plastic baskets in the bathroom, one of which is filled with the tools of hygiene -- toothbrush, washcloth, soap, brush, comb, etc. As your teenager finishes using a tool, he can place it in the second basket.

Use Video and Record

Another powerful visual tool is video. If you videotape your teenager performing each task successfully, he can then show the videotape of himself to other members of the family. Similar to a visual checklist, a videotape repeats the images of good grooming in your teenager’s mind. Have family members praise the video, so your teenager feels supported by positive reinforcement.

Pair Routine with Rewards

Link the successful completion of hygiene routines with a rewards system. For example, your teenager can mark the laminated checklist on the bathroom wall. Each mark can earn a point toward a prize of some kind. It can be a privilege, such as more TV or game time, or a material good, such as a videogame. Begin hygiene routines as early as possible, so your teenager with special needs enters adulthood with several years of practice with a grooming regimen.

Address the Demands of Puberty

Explain menstruation to your daughter before she experiences her first period so she understands it’s a natural and harmless event. Provide her with a case for her pads as well as a picture-filled schedule detailing how to use and change the pads. She should be able to carry the schedule in her case. Begin with pads and only transition to tampons when she feels comfortable. For a teenage boy with autism spectrum disorders, shaving can bombard his senses and cause stress. Have him try an electric shaver with as little vibration as possible. Ask the man of the house to practice shaving with your teenage boy, so he grows familiar with using both cream and the shaver.

Accommodate Physical Limitations

For a teenager with physical disabilities, it may be difficult for him to complete a hygiene routine without your help. In addition, you may need to make changes in the appliances required for grooming. The goal is to adapt a hygiene-related activity so as to make it as easy for your teenager to perform as independently as possible. For example, you may need to fit your child’s shower with a chair. You may even need to hire a hair dresser and manicurist to assist in your teenager’s hygiene needs.

About the Author

Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.