Thursday, April 7, 2011

Teaching autistic kids hygiene

It's really my own fault. Yes, there are some special conditions, but I can't blame anyone but myself for my problems with my teeth. Last weekend, I spent some time in the emergency room for extreme mouth pain to check for possibility of a dental abscess or infection. Man did it hurt. It felt like the entire side of my face wanted to break open. So, why didn't I go to a dentist? Well, that's a problem the entire state of Wisconsin is facing right now.

There are thousands of people on state care (Badgercare, Forward card, Medicaid, Medicare, etc.) here and only a handful of dentists who will take that insurance. When I moved here, I had some cavities to take care of. No problem, go to the dentist right? Wrong. The only dentists I could find that would consider my insurance was too far away for me to get to. The Dental collage? Two year waiting list when I called them. Now that I'm considered an "emergency" the surgeon can see me in a few WEEKS. Why? Because there aren't enough dentists who will do the job and accept the insurance. Currently, the standoff between the dentists and the insurance is a threat to my health and that of thousands of others. That is why I now have three broken teeth instead of cavities. Well, there is the point that I am about to make that could have kept me from worrying about any of this garbage.... I could have done a better job taking care of myself.

Especially in these times of idiotic greed from so called professionals who are supposed to represent our health and well being, our kids must learn the importance of their personal hygiene. To do this, I believe we need to understand what gets in the way of using that hygiene properly.

Our autistic children have a couple issues that get in their way. One is that they are very "bottom line" oriented and have a tendency to want to skip steps in things to get to the end result. They don't see a reason to put extra time into things and have to learn where it is important and why. Details matter. They can also suffer the attitude of "why bother, I'm only going to get them dirty again" and that requires use of another set of details. They don't understand that cavities happen over a long period of time. It has to be integrated as a matter of routine too. If it's not routine, it will get dropped. Then there's the matter of "stuck in a rut" where their special interest will overtake hygiene and other issues of actual life importance. A balance has to be planned out and practiced from early on.

Depression and other mental illnesses cloud judgment and can severely affect proper hygiene. Feelings of worthlessness or obsession with certain issues will literally crowd out even feeling the need to practice hygiene. "Why bother" becomes a major danger along with diminished feelings of self worth. If you feel like you are a worthless person you will treat yourself the same. I had a severe period of depression that lasted for several years and hurt me badly. It was also hard for loved ones to see. I'm glad I have my depression under wraps now, but I know how much damage it could do or could have done. Remember, at it's worst, depression can kill. That means any other damage along the way is simple for it.

What things help install those healthy habits?

Routine, routine, routine: Make it a required routine. Make it a requirement before doing two things; leaving the house for school or anything else and going to bed. No matter what you go to bed for, you must brush your teeth before you do. It's that simple. This practice can keep your teeth healthy for decades.

Teach negative consequences: But watch out for the "won't happen to me" attitude. An important consequence for our kids and especially our kids with autism, is social acceptance. Most of them want social acceptance desperately, they have to know right away that personal hygiene is of the utmost importance in having that. No one wants to be near anyone who stinks, for example. Bad breath and rotten teeth are turn offs too. Does he or she want to get along with the opposite sex? Then you must have good hygiene in all it's forms. It's a life lesson. Yes, many of these can turn into positive consequences as well and should be presented both ways.

Example: I know of a child who skips wiping his bottom after going to the bathroom (skipping steps for the end result). We can tell because he also skips flushing. As a matter of hygiene it's constantly reminded and explained. Does he want people to complain that he stinks (which will hurt his feelings)? Of course not. Then, he has to do all the steps and clean himself when he's done. I give him something to associate with, knowing he hates strong smells himself. I remind him how it feels when he comes across something that smells bad to him. If he smells like that to everyone else, what will happen? This is just one example of course, but hopefully you can see some techniques that will help you. It's more important with our health care problems now than ever before.

Another technique I've mentioned before is getting them involved, especially as teens who require more hygiene items than small children. Let them pick the things with scents that won't trigger them and are non-irritating to their skin. Remember, they still have to deal with their autism on top of becoming a teen.


Brian@bothsidesofthecoin said...

Very interesting post, I love hearing your perspective on something that is so often overlooked. I'm glad to see concrete reasons for this instead of labeling them the "smelly kid." Thanks for some root causes. If you're interested, click my name and I think you go to my autism blog.

Thewildeman2 said...

Thank you and I will check that out.