Autism is a lot more commonplace than people think. You might feel like it’s a rarity, but 1 in 54 children in the US gets diagnosed with ASD, so the general awareness of the disorder needs to increase. It impairs daily functioning based on its severity, and can greatly affect living independently. Tasks like cooking, cleaning, maintaining personal hygiene and working get affected and it becomes difficult for children with ASD to turn into fully functional adults.
How Autism Affects Your Daily Life
Daily living skills include personal hygiene and development, money management, meal preparation, and other things that help maintain a sense of general well-being. These are important life skills that come naturally to most but they are quite difficult to inculcate in someone with autism. This is because there are a lot of fundamental neurological differences in someone with autism versus someone who is neurotypical. The neurodivergent brain is what makes them so skilled and talented at some things and so bad at managing others.
Self-care becomes a secondary thought and the autistic mind does not perceive it to be a part of their daily routine. Eating three meals a day, showering, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, sleeping, and cutting your nails are some of the things that come easy to most of us, but they don’t to someone with ASD.
They need to undergo therapy from an early age to manage these simple tasks that we often take for granted. They need to set a lot of reminders, need constant support and sometimes even supervision to get them done regularly. They don’t find these tasks necessary so they don’t indulge in them. Everything needs to be broken into a defined routine that they need to follow religiously to function as active members of society.
All of these depend on where they are on the spectrum as well as how early or late they get diagnosed. Someone with high functioning autism may find it easy to pick up these tasks and add them to their daily routine, but those who are not that functional can find it extremely difficult. Getting diagnosed early (between the ages of 2 and 5) can really help alter behavioral patterns and teach them routines that they can follow every day.
Routines are important for someone on the spectrum, and any disruptions can rattle them. They find solace in the schedule they maintain, but like most routines, they are bound to be disrupted from time to time. There are many transitions that one goes through as a part of their life, but it becomes extremely difficult for someone with ASD to be able to understand and live through them with highly functional capabilities.
A big part of this is maintaining cleanliness around the house and personal hygiene. These are normal day-to-day things that won’t change over time, which is why it should be a primary goal for someone with ASD to set a routine around them.
Why Cleanliness and Household Hygiene is Important for People with ASD
Besides the general routine and hygiene aspect of maintaining cleanliness around the house, people with ASD need to take care of their environment for their mental health. Those who are on the spectrum tend to get overwhelmed easily by their surroundings and the clutter around them can act as a trigger. The more clutter present in their environment, the higher the chances of them being overwhelmed. Since people on the spectrum are already prone to anxiety, seizure disorders (around 20-30% of those diagnosed tend to develop a seizure disorder later as they age), and OCD, it becomes imperative for them to maintain a clean, organized living and workspace to enhance productivity and functioning.
Maintaining personal and social hygiene is also difficult for them, which is why teaching people with autism the importance of cleanliness and organization also becomes crucial. This is because the autistic brain tends to get easily distracted - or rather, focuses on tiny, specific things instead of the bigger picture. If there is a lot of clutter present around them, even if they are cleaning up, autistic people tend to fixate on one particular aspect of one particular task and then avoid doing the rest. Teaching cleanliness habits and routines to help them organize their room from an early age will help them maintain a sense of environmental hygiene in their space.
Clean work and home environment also boost the organizational skills that they have learned so far. It helps them avoid creating clutter in the first place, thereby reinforcing their habits. If they have a clean space to work in, autistic children tend to have an easier time transitioning to the next task after the first one. It helps them develop organizational skills for coping with life.
Teaching Children with ASD to Maintain Cleanliness and Hygiene
Understand the sensory overload
Autistic children find that their senses are always heightened to another level. This makes them extremely sensitive to their surroundings. As a parent or teacher, you need to understand what overwhelms them and what does not. They can feel disrupted by something as out of your control as the weather. It could be the smell of the new detergent you thought to try out. It could be the fabric of the t-shirt they are wearing. It could be the temperature of the water. You have to keep these sensations in mind when you are trying to teach your child how to maintain personal and environmental hygiene. Finding out what helps them and what overwhelms them is the first step in this process.
Increase their awareness of the tasks and break them down into manageable steps
Children with autism need to understand the importance of a task before they learn how to complete it. This is something that can be difficult to do because they aren’t going to be able to see the consequences of not brushing their teeth every day, or not clearing the toys when they are done playing with them. Once you have made the child understand the ‘why’ behind completing a task (why it needs to be done and what will happen if it is left incomplete), you can move on with the next steps.
Label everything around you with either words or colors so that they know what X is. For example, a green label on your toys and a green label on the drawer they are supposed to go in can help them identify where the toys are supposed to go. Once you have completed this step, start breaking down the entire task into a series of steps that they can follow. This helps them build a routine around the task, making it easier to pick up and learn for long periods of time.
Try the backward chaining method
The way neurotypicals learn how to perform tasks is to just do them one step at a time. This can become difficult for someone with autism because they won’t be able to see the end result of the task they have performed. The lack of clarity of how things will be once it is done makes it tougher for them to follow through the steps of completing a task.
The backward chaining method involves teaching children with autism the task from the result as a first step. Instead of completing steps A to Z, the children start from Z and slowly build up to A. The parent, teacher, or whoever is in charge of teaching the child is supposed to complete the task right up till the final step. Then the child will perform the last step over and over again till they have grasped it. After which the parent will move on to the second last step, then the third last step, and so on, till the child learns the task completely.
Here are some ways you can teach your child basic cleanliness and hygiene tasks using the backward chaining method.
Give prompts regularly and provide support
Prompting gives autistic children the additional stimulation to complete a step while performing a task. The kids get an added boost with the assistance of the prompt and get nudged into completing the task. It helps reinforce the steps they need to follow and acts as a reminder helping them learn what they are supposed to do.
Parents should be mindful of the prompts they are using as well. They need to be the least intrusive or distracting so that the child can still focus on the task he or she is learning. The prompts will only continue to work if there is a reward present by the end of it, so add incentives with your prompts as well. Slowly, as the child begins to learn, the parent should start fading the prompts until they are completely gone and the entire task has been learned successfully. If the prompts aren’t gradually faded over time, the child can develop a dependency on them and will not manage to complete the task without the prompt. The prompt becomes a part of the routine otherwise.
Be flexible with your teaching methods
You can have a highly productive day one day, and the next day isn’t so great. Some days you just can’t seem to get anything done. It happens to all of us, and it applies to those with autism too. All children have good and bad days, even ones diagnosed with ASD. You should keep this in mind and not be so rigid with your plan when you are teaching the child basic life skills.
Piling everything can help
People with ASD cannot think clearly around clutter. When you’re teaching your child how to clean up after themselves, one thing that can help is piling. Take the entire mess and dump it in one corner. Keep your floor clean except for the pile. This way the child will learn that the pile, and only the pile, is what needs to be cleaned and get to the task faster. It may seem like an absurd concept - but it helps them understand what the messy bits are and what the clean bits are and once they learn the difference, they will be able to tackle it much better.
The final point - please be patient with your child. It’s difficult to build a habit for children in general (even us adults find it hard to set a new routine), but it is a lot more difficult for a child with autism. So no matter how frustrating it can get, don’t lose your cool in front of your child. Keep calm and stay patient. Good things take time, and building a good habit such as maintaining cleanliness and hygiene does too.
What Adults with ASD Can Do
Adults diagnosed with ASD can also have a hard time maintaining a cleanliness and hygiene routine despite learning all the necessary steps and skills from an early age. The introduction of new stressors in their lives that are out of their control, the addition of something new in their house, work, or living environment, or mental health issues can result in adults with autism spiraling and losing control of their cleaning routine.
What can adults with autism do then?
Adults should avoid buying new things. If you are an adult diagnosed with ASD, you will find it much easier to just reuse a tool, appliance, or object than to keep buying it.
Take water as an example - if you have one bottle of water ready for the day of say 2 - 2.5l, all you have to do is refill it once and you’re good to go for the rest of the day. You can take it to work, to your walk, basically everywhere you go. Otherwise, you’ll have to keep making the extra effort of buying the bottle, consuming it, throwing it away. One simple task becomes three different tasks; something that can be easily avoided.
Try minimizing the clutter in your house
Minimalism as a concept focuses on creating less and keeping less. Don’t keep the stuff you don’t need or want - in terms of materialistic objects as well as mental space. Instead of going through the entire decluttering process, don’t buy things you don’t need in the first place. That way you won’t have to clear, organize and maintain them.
Keeping the walls and floors bare in your house, avoiding adding unnecessary decorations, not collecting knick-knacks, etc., can help create a sense of ease and eliminate other additional cleaning tasks around the house. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. If it isn’t functional, don’t keep it. Simple as that.
How to avoid burnout with ASD
Burnout can happen to any of us when we feel overwhelmed by our surroundings. It can be either emotional, professional, or just mental burnout. We all need time to sit back, relax and breathe every once in a while to be able to get back up again.
Adults with autism are more sensitive to burnout because they already have a heightened sensory perception of their surroundings. You need to be careful of where you go and what you do to avoid sensory overload and result in you burning out. It can feel like you are incapacitated, unable to perform simple tasks you could do daily before, and the mess can build up around you - leading you deeper into this state.
Coming back from burnout can take much longer for someone who is autistic than for someone who is not. So you have to be mindful of yourself and how you are feeling to avoid reaching this state in the first place.
Every time you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and focus on realigning your mental health before starting with your tasks again. It will help offset the chances of you spiraling into burnout and give you the breather you need to regain your focus.
Take stock of your expectations and responsibilities and revisit them if you feel like it’s getting too much. It will help you regain a sense of control over your surroundings. It also helps to prioritize what is important to you and what isn’t regularly to keep you focused on your goals and aspirations.
Create accommodations for yourself too. It’s not easy living with ASD, and you shouldn’t punish yourself for it. Take all the help you can get and ask for more when you need it. Cut yourself some slack. Nobody has to be perfect all day every day repeatedly, and you should always remember that. Take work accommodations, extensions for your deadlines, ask your professor to guide you, or defer for a semester at your university if need be. Prioritize your well-being over everything else so that you don’t reach a burnout state.
How to be Supportive of Someone with ASD
As allies, partners, parents, guardians, coworkers, friends, or whatever relationship you might share with the person around you who has been diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder, you should be supportive of them. Avoid making the autistic person around you feel excluded, different, or ‘special’. Just because they have needs different from yours does not mean they want to be reminded of them every day. They work doubly hard to perform the same tasks as you do, and instead of reminding them of that, accept it as who they are and move on with your lives.
You should also keep checking in on them regularly to ensure that they are doing well. Adults with autism can have a hard time reaching out for help when they need it the most and can end up getting into a shell of their own making. Check in, see how they’re doing and help them if they need it even if they haven’t asked for it.
Spreading awareness and promoting inclusivity at your workplace, university or school can also help someone with autism feel more at home in their surroundings. New places, people, and experiences can be too much for them, and giving them the little extra help they need to feel at ease will do you no harm and go a long way for them.
Autism isn’t something you can control or change. It is a disorder people are born with and they shouldn’t feel like they are being punished for it. Creating routines around maintaining cleanliness and hygiene from an early age will help children with autism turn into functional adults who can live independently, just like their neurotypical peers can. It is an essential life skill; and parents and teachers should give all the time it takes to teach them the methods and importance of maintaining personal hygiene, organization skills, and cleanliness.