Most of us think of taking a bath as a relatively relaxing experience, but for someone who is sensitive to stimuli, there’s actually a lot going on.
When parents bathe their autistic children, they face a variety of challenges. Below we’ll discuss why that is and what parents can do to make bath time with an autistic child a more pleasant experience for everyone.
What is autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability. However, the reason it’s referred to as a “spectrum” disorder is because there is a wide variety of conditions that fit into this category, and some cases are more severe than others.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today.
Why may someone with autism have a bathing issue?
When a child is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, you may have trouble interacting with them. Characteristics of autism that can lead to challenges while bathing a child, specifically, include:
- Their likeliness to get upset by minor changes
- Their desire to follow specific routines
- Physical reactions such as hand flapping and body rocking
- Unexpected (and often unpleasant) reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
- Their hyperactive and impulsive behavior
But the main challenge for children on the autism spectrum when it comes to bath time is their reaction to physical stimuli. An autistic child may find bath time traumatic, which in turn makes it hard for whoever is bathing them.
Heightened sensory issues
Children on the autism spectrum are often overstimulated during bath time. This may be because they do not enjoy the sounds and feelings associated with being in the bath or the need to sit still during their discomfort.
Some of the things that may affect them negatively include:
- Splashing or running water
- Water temperature
- Bathroom lights
- The smells of soaps or shampoos
- The feeling of soap on their skin
- The feeling of being towel-dried or wrapped in a towel
- The feeling or fear of getting soap in their eyes
- The sound of water draining
As a result of these negative feelings, children may develop a fear of water. They may also get anxious about getting out of the tub and being exposed to the cold air or slippery surfaces.
A bathtub is a relatively confined space, which can lead to feelings of claustrophobia as well.
Tips for bathing someone with autism
The best way to make bath time more enjoyable (or at least less traumatic) for everyone is to limit a child’s exposure to potential fears as much as possible and play to their strengths.
Pick a time that works for them
Children on the autism spectrum generally like routine. If bath time happens at the same time and in the same way each day, there may be less room for anxiety over the unexpected.
It may also be wise to schedule bath time a few hours before or after other stimulating activities so the child is already calm and not overstimulated.
Prepare the bath in advance
If your child is sensitive to sounds, fill the bathtub without them in the room. You may also keep in mind the height at which they prefer the water. Some children do not like to be submerged more than is necessary.
You can also perform a temperature check so you know the bath water will not be too hot or too cold for the child and cause them extra discomfort.
In addition, if you prepare a child’s bath ahead of time, you will have the chance to remove any items (such as toys or excess bottles) that might cause them anxiety.
Make a to-do list
Uncertainty on the part of the parent or child makes bath time more difficult. That’s why it may be helpful to make a list of everything you need to do in order to prepare your child for bath time.
In the event that another guardian is bathing them, having a list will help them keep bath time as consistent as possible for your child as well.
Most fragrances are artificial anyway, so a fragrance-free bathroom might be in everyone’s best interests.
Children on the autism spectrum can react poorly to strong or new smells, so it’s a good idea to minimize fragrances by doing the following:
- Eliminate air fresheners or other scented decor from the bathroom your child uses for bath time
- Invest in soaps and shampoos that are fragrance-free
Decide if a shower or bath is better
In some cases, a shower may be a better option than a bath for a child on the autism spectrum. It will all depend on the individual and how they respond to the feeling of water on their skin.
Try both a bath and shower with your child, making sure you use a routine, pay close attention to water temperature, and eliminate as many scents as possible before deciding which they respond to best.
Toys for bath time
Some autistic children are easier to bathe when they are distracted by toys. Here are a few bath tub items to try:
Sensory sponges – This 14-piece sponge set is practical and playful. The different textures will allow your child to choose what they enjoy most. Click here for purchase information.
Bath crayons – These easy-wash crayons are a great distraction for children who don’t enjoy bath or shower time, but do love to get creative. They let your child focus on something more pleasant so bath time is over before they know it. Click here for purchase information.
PipSquigz – This silicone suction toy is designed to get your child to notice it rather than their surroundings. They can provide a soothing sensory experience for younger children. Click here to purchase.
Shampoo, body wash, and conditioner for autistic children
It’s important to choose cleansing items carefully for your autistic child to eliminate any unwanted smells or textures. Here are a few recommended items for bath or shower time:
Nature Clean Kids Shampoo & Body Wash – A two-in-one product that is hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, natural, and non-irritating.
Suave Sensitive Skin 3-in-1 Shampoo, Conditioner, Body Wash – This product takes care of all 3 bathing necessities in one bottle. It’s also fragrance-free.
Babo Botanicals Sensitive Baby Fragrance Free Shampoo & Wash – This two-in-one product is also formulated for sensitive skin and senses.