Handwashing with Autism: 7 ABA Tips to Guide the Process

Handwashing with Autism: 7 ABA Tips to Guide the Process

Table of Contents

Why Do Individuals with Autism Struggle with Handwashing?

As parents or caregivers of children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we understand that daily tasks such as handwashing can be daunting and challenging experiences for some on the spectrum. Sensory processing issues that often accompany neurodiversity can make handwashing with autism difficult for some to tolerate and perform.

With these factors in mind, many families with a loved one on the spectrum find themselves asking why individuals with autism struggle with handwashing. The answer typically lies in the core features of their loved one’s ASD traits. 

Variables like the touch, sound, and smell of water and soap can make handwashing with autism unnerving, scary, and overwhelming for some. As a result, some individuals with the condition may avoid handwashing, which can be problematic and unsafe. Handwashing is a vital skill in preventing the spread of germs and illness, making it a critical skill set for everyone in society to have. 

Fortunately, families with loved ones who are having trouble handwashing with autism should feel relief because, with the right approach, their loved ones on the spectrum can learn to wash their hands effectively. In most cases, ABA therapy and many of its evidence-based techniques help neurodiverse individuals acquire this skill, among many others.  

In this blog by ABA Centers of New Jersey, we will explore some of the most common difficulties those with ASD face when it comes to handwashing. We will also discuss how ABA therapy can help those with ASD manage these struggles for better outcomes.

So, keep reading to learn more about handwashing with autism. Fortunately, understanding and overcoming these challenges can significantly improve hygiene habits for ASD kids!

Click here for more information about ABA Centers of New Jersey or to read other autism, ABA, and autism diagnostic blogs.

Autism and Handwashing

Before addressing how to teach handwashing with autism, it’s essential to understand why it’s a problematic skill for some on the spectrum to grasp in the first place.

According to Autism Speaks, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that commonly affects how individuals communicate and interact with others, often causing difficulty in social situations. However, ASD also brings a host of sensory processing differences that can make everyday activities like handwashing difficult.  

Challenges in Autism with Handwashing and How ABA Helps

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, offers a comprehensive approach to addressing the obstacles some with autism face when learning handwashing. By tailoring ABA interventions to clients’ specific needs, ABA providers can support individuals in developing this essential hygiene skill.

The following are a few features of autism that can make handwashing difficult for some on the spectrum and how ABA can help:

  • Sensory Issues

One of the primary reasons why individuals with autism struggle with hand washing is due to sensory issues. These sensitivities may include hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to various textures, smells, and temperatures.

For example, the sensation of wet soap may be overstimulating for some neurodivergent individuals, leading to difficulties tolerating the sensation of the process and creating avoidance.

Additionally, some with ASD may also have sensory aversions to certain smells and textures associated with soaps and other cleaning products. These aversions can also make it challenging to find a suitable soap or hand sanitizer that your ASD loved one feels comfortable with. In some cases, this further complicates the process of handwashing with autism.

Alternatively, ABA can help families and individuals address these sensory challenges through individualized ABA techniques. Over time, through gradual, safe exposure that considers the client’s needs, they can learn to tolerate various soap textures safely. They can also work on understanding the process in a simple way that limits triggers.

  • Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning deficits in those with ASD can also contribute to difficulties with handwashing. These skills include planning, organizing, and managing tasks, which are all requirements for completing the steps involved in washing your hands. The difficulties can affect the individual’s ability to understand the sequence of handwashing, which may cause them to perform the order of actions incorrectly.

For example, the person may apply the soap at the end of the handwashing sequence or turn off the faucet before rinsing, which can impact efficacy.

ABA providers can make the skill more accessible through digestible steps and teaching the purpose of handwashing.

  • Transition Difficulties

Many parents recognize transitions can be difficult for individuals with ASD. Moving from one activity to another, such as stopping playtime to wash hands, can be particularly challenging for those who are neurodivergent.

ABA providers often use visual schedules and social stories to help children on the spectrum understand when transitions will occur, what to expect during them, and why they are essential. Preparing individuals in advance for changes in routine can help reduce their anxiety and resistance when it comes time to wash their hands.

  • Social Importance of Handwashing

Some people with ASD find it difficult to comprehend the social importance of handwashing, such as before eating or after using the restroom. They might not see the immediate need or benefits of the practice. ABA therapy can help by teaching individuals with ASD the benefits and expectations around handwashing. Additionally, ABA can provide positive reinforcement for appropriate handwashing behaviors to improve reoccurrence.

Caregiver Strategies to Improve Handwashing with Autism

The following ABA strategies can help caregivers teach handwashing with autism with greater ease for better comprehension:

1. Model

Demonstrate the handwashing process step by step. Model how to turn on the tap, apply soap, scrub, rinse, and dry hands. Repetition helps this process tremendously for many!

2. Implement Visual Aids When Possible

Caregivers of those with ASD can use visual aids, such as pictures or videos, to illustrate each step of the handwashing process to solidify expectations.

3. Simplify the Process

Break down the handwashing steps into smaller and manageable steps with clear language. Some families and providers find the most success using checklists, including pictures or symbols for each step, which is helpful when teaching the skill.

4. Pick the Appropriate Materials

When teaching handwashing to children with autism, it’s vital to choose soap with a pleasant, mild scent or no smell and a comfortable texture. Consider using lukewarm water to reduce sensory discomfort.

5. Establish Routines and Schedules

To limit surprises about handwashing, create a consistent handwashing routine that occurs at the exact times each day (e.g., before meals and after using the bathroom).

6. Utilize Positive Reinforcement Whenever Possible

Families and providers should use positive reinforcement immediately after successful handwashing. Praise, stickers, or small rewards can motivate the behavior, so ensure you select something you know your child finds motivating!

7. Create a Supportive Environment

Families and providers should do their best to establish a calm environment to create more positive associations with handwashing. To do so, ensure the handwashing area is tranquil and free from distractions.

Other ways to create a supportive environment for ASD handwashing include offering accommodations to cater to sensory preferences, such as using noise-canceling headphones if the sound of running water is bothersome during the process.

Handwashing with Autism Is Critical and Manageable!

Handwashing is a crucial life skill that promotes health and hygiene. However, some ASD people face unique challenges when performing this task. Fortunately, through ABA therapy, caregivers and providers can support individuals on the spectrum in developing effective handwashing practices! In many cases, it occurs through a combination of modeling, ABA support, and positive reinforcement.

So, keep up your ABA routine, and remember to wash your hands! We’ve got this!

How ABA Centers of New Jersey Supports Better Hygiene with Autism

At ABA Centers of New Jersey, we understand the importance of teaching hygiene skills to individuals with autism. Our team of trained and experienced ABA providers utilizes evidence-based strategies through ABA care to support individuals in developing practical handwashing skills.

We additionally offer autism diagnostic services to many across New Jersey communities, including Woodstown, Trenton, and Paterson.

ABA Centers of New Jersey takes a personalized approach to everyone’s ASD needs, ensuring they feel comfortable learning to handwash with autism at the best time for them.

Contact us today at (855) 640-7888 or via this online link to learn more about how we can support your loved one’s hygiene needs through ABA therapy.

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