How to Teach Handwashing and Mask-Wearing to Your Autistic Child

In recent months, the CDC have released updated guidelines for personal hygiene and safety: avoid crowded spaces, avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, wash your hands, and wear a mask when around others.  For parents of autistic children, this not only means reminding children to maintain new norms: it means finding new ways to work specific actions into children’s daily routine.  Autistic children navigate changes in their day-to-day differently than their neurotypical peers.  We hope these tips will help our parents, families, and caregivers develop effective teaching strategies. 

Break down handwashing into small, simple steps.

Create small steps for your child that are easy for them to focus on and remember.  Create a sign with colorful images for your child to follow at the sink.  Handwashing can be broken down into such small steps as:

  1. Turn on the water.
  2. Get your hands wet.
  3. Put soap on your hands.
  4. Make suds with your hands on the front and back.
  5. Rinse your hands.
  6. Turn the water off.
  7. Dry your hands.

Use prompts.

Autistic children learn best through clear, to-the-point directions.  Be ready to invest time in practicing new routines with your children.  To help the process run smoothly, parents can use different types of prompts according to their child’s cognitive and behavioral needs.  Different types of prompts include:

  • Verbal prompts: Give your child clear directions at each step in the handwashing process.  Your child may need help remembering where to go or what to do in between steps, and gentle verbal reminders are a great guiding tool.
  • Model prompts: Demonstrate how to perform small tasks.  Show your child how to turn the sink on and off, and then have them try it themselves.  Wash your hands alongside your child and give them a consistent model to work from.
  • Gestural prompts: Use gestures to indicate different objects that your child should interact with.  For instance, point at the soap and ask them to put soap on their hands.
  • Physical prompts: Full physical prompting entails gentle “hand-over-hand” contact to guide the child toward certain tasks.  According to your child’s need, you may offer partial physical prompts and let your child complete the task on their own.

Use reinforcers.

Offer your child concrete rewards for completing small segments of handwashing.  For example, offer a bag of Skittles.  Offer a Skittle for each completed segment, and then offer the bag once handwashing is complete.  This will motivate your child to cooperate, as well as make the learning experience more fun and engaging.

Make masks together.

Involve your child in the mask-making process.  Have them select their favorite fabric, and show them how the mask is sewn or tied together.  Give your child plenty of style options to give them a sense of agency.

Encourage kids to get creative and have fun.

Let your child decorate their mask with markers or stickers.  Introduce a sense of play and imagination: maybe your child uses their mask to transform into a doctor or a superhero (or both).

Model safe behavior.

One of the most important measures you can take as a parent is to demonstrate personal hygiene and safety for your child.  Let your child see you handwashing and wearing a mask.  This can help your child embrace everyday change.

Developing a culture of engaged, self-disciplined, collaborative, and creative thinkers.

We want to help your family and your school district inspire students to transform low performing behaviors. Contact our team now to learn more about our positive behavior support programs.
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