In our last blog post, we talked about challenges and fears your child may have during bath time and some tricks to alleviate those fears. We, however, want to go above and beyond just making bath time easier for autistic children (and yourself), here are several ways you can try to actually make it enjoyable.
Finding the right combination of tools and making sure you’re setting up the proper expectations for your child can eventually turn even bath time into a fun event, with much less stress involved for you and your little one.
- Identify the Autistic Stressors of Bath Time
If you already know what upsets your child about bath time, that’s great! Knowing is definitely half the battle here. But if you’re not sure exactly what’s causing the distress, using trial and error may be your best approach. Before you do though, here are some common questions (and solutions) to verify what’s really going on.
Does the bathing process take too long?
Keep track of how long bathing is taking from one session to the next. Once you find that sweet spot, set a countdown timer to help the child know the end of bath time is coming soon.
What is the ideal water temperature?
Keep a thermometer nearby to test water temperature at every stage of bathing, during meltdowns and when things are calm. One study found that hot baths made autistic children more sociable and reduced repetitive behavior when lasting 30 minutes and with the water temperature at exactly 102 °F. A couple degrees below and the results were completely different. Most of the time, managing your autistic child’s behavior is not an exact science. But sometimes it can be.
What is the ideal water level?
Keep a ruler nearby to test water height. Once you find that ideal temperature and height you can prepare a bath with the best chance of success.
Is it too cold to get out of the tub when your child is soaking wet?
Make sure warm towels are ready for wrapping up in at the end of the bath. Electric towel warmers can work wonders, or put a towel in the dryer right before use.
Does your child hate the feeling of being wet?
Be sure you've laid a change of clothes out ahead of time so post-bath time doesn't prolong the trauma.
Who is in control of the washing?
Sometimes, allowing your child to take a bit of control is enough to stop distress from building into a full-blown meltdown. So if you’re personally doing all the scrubbing, lathering, rinsing, and washing, see if your child responds differently if they handle the tasks themselves.
Do they respond differently to a bath versus shower?
You may be surprised to discover an autism shower routine works better for your child than a bath. For some children, a bath will work better. Don’t be afraid to try different things until you find a combination that works best for you and your child. Experimenting is key.
What is their preferred towel and washing texture?
For many children with autism, there are definite texture preferences. A washrag doesn’t have the same texture as a loofah or a sponge. The texture of towels can vary from one to another, and their texture can become an even bigger issue, depending on whether you gently towel dry your child or use a more vigorous rub.
Are specific actions generating a worse response than others?
Take note of cause and effects throughout bathing. For example, is hair washing a particularly volatile trigger? If so, breakdown all the variables in the process, from the type of soap being used to washing methods. Be aware that a child with sensory issues may also be dealing with gravitational insecurity, and leaning their head back to wash their hair can be highly upsetting.
Are you calm and collected before and during bath time, or are you stressed and showing it with your words and actions?
Looking at what usually happens before and after a meltdown, including what we say and do and how we say it, can sometimes help give us direction to see why the meltdowns keep happening (or getting worse) and what we can alter to improve the situation next time bath time rolls around.
Once you know the stressors that are causing the issues you can start eliminating them more easily. This might seem obvious but it’s really important to approach the entire process one step at a time.
This will make managing your child’s expectations and your response a lot easier.
- Make Sure Your Child Feels Secure Throughout the Bath
The first step in making your child feel secure is feeling secure yourself. Finding the right bath or shower routine can be a process. It involves trial and error, patience, and going slowly to find what works best for you and your child. So make sure you’re in the right state of mind going in.
One way to make this easier is striving to etch out ample time for bathing. One of the quickest ways to get stressed is to feel rushed in what you’re doing. The next step is finding ways to make them feel in control, secure, and protected with what’s happening. Here are a few examples:
Issue: Your child negatively reacts to getting water or shampoo in their eyes
Response: Offer swim goggles or a foam or plastic visor to keep water and shampoo out
Issue: Your child can’t stand being rinsed off
Response: Try letting them rinse themselves off using a hand-held shower hose
Issue: Your child does not like water on their skin.
Response: Try using much less water in the tub, maybe only two inches to start.
Issue: Your child has trouble with balance standing, getting in, and getting out of the tub
Response: Attach a bath grab bar, traction mat, or safety railing to help with stability
Over time you will learn your child’s bathing preferences and improve the process. With enough attention, patience, and perseverance you’ll be amazed at the results.
Of course, we realize that’s easier said than done. But don’t give up! The most important thing you can do throughout this process is to communicate with your child. Each time you head into a bath battle, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: Are you managing expectations and communicating as best you can? Talk through the entire process with your child, before, during, and after. Explain what you’ll be doing and in what order things will happen. They’re likely to be less anxious when they know what to expect.
Many parents have found it helpful to have a list of each step in the autism bath time process. The same way you might create a visual schedule for daily routines, it’s also a really good idea to create a bath time-specific schedule or shower chart. This will help the child better understand where they are in the process and what’s coming up next.
- Calm Your Child Before Bath Time
The calmer your child is going into bath time, the better chance of them remaining calm throughout.
If you find your child is overstimulated by bathing, consider having them do a little “heavy work” before the bath to help calm them down. This can mean going up and down the stairs or jumping on a mini-trampoline. Hugging your child, carrying boxes, walking pets, and yoga stretches are all good examples of proprioceptive input, commonly called “heavy work.”
Another way to offset the overstimulation of bath time is by moving it to earlier in the afternoon or evening, rather than bathing just before bedtime.
- Make the Bathing Environment All About Your Child
Truth be told, those first three steps are more about getting your child with autism in the right mood — a neutral, accepting state. Once there, the window of opportunity is open to make the experience not just enjoyable, but something to look forward to. Which is exactly what these next two tips are all about. Because let’s face it, of all the rooms in our homes, bathrooms are one of the least exciting.
From teeth brushing to washing hands and bathing, there’s a lot of obligations going on in there for a child that are huge killjoys. So any little thing you can do to make the environment more enjoyable will make bathing more enjoyable.
Now, we’re not suggesting you turn your bathroom into a Chuck E. Cheese. But we’re also not suggesting you don’t turn your bathroom into a Chuck E. Cheese. (Because wouldn’t bath time be so much more enjoyable if it came with games, prizes, and pizza?)
Adding some kid-friendliness to your bathroom and bathing gear can go a long way. Does your child love dinosaurs? Well, dinosaur the place up! Are they into ponies? We’re pretty sure a bathroom can never have enough ponies.
Here’s a slew of other fun bathroom design ideas for kids to inspire you.
Of course, it’s also important to consider the special needs of a child with autism when setting up the bathing environment. If noises are bothersome to your child with autism, make sure there are plenty of towels, robes, rugs, and other fabrics in the room. If necessary, spread extra towels or rugs on the floor. Bathrooms can act as echo chambers, and fabrics help absorb the sounds that may bounce off multiple hard surfaces.
You may also find it easier to prepare the bath ahead of time. Close the door while filling the tub, then turn the water off. Wait until the room is calm and quiet before bringing your child in to bathe. If bright lights are troublesome to your child with autism, consider installing a dimmer switch, or turn off the bathroom light and only use a lamp or hallway light for illumination. If certain smells overstimulate your child with autism try to make the room odor-free or use air fresheners.
- Make Bath Time Fun
Last but certainly not least, if you want your child to enjoy taking baths make them fun! You know what this means...
Toys! Toys! And more TOYS!
There is no shortage of waterproof dolls and action figures, wind-up toys designed for moving through sudsy water, special bath time crayons, or even just plain plastic cups and containers.
But even if you don’t want to turn your bathroom into a tiled toy box, there are plenty of other ways to make bath time less of a bore and more of a game. In fact, take that literally and turn your bath time into a game. Here are some great splish-splashing fun bathtub games and activities from Parents.com to get you started.
Ashley Lavoie is a mom of three and manages both child and adult ADHD and neonatal diabetes. She is advocating for awareness and loves writing and connecting with other families like hers.
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.