Sunday evening, I saw Alex come out of the bathroom smelling strongly of shaving cream. He saw me looking at his clean-shaven face and shrugged mildly, as if to say, “There, Mama! Are you happy yet?” I am, after all, his facial hair’s greatest opponent.
And yet, even as I constantly hound Alex to maintain only a decent amount of facial hair (I’d prefer that he shaves them off completely, but we compromised), I cannot ask the same of his younger brother. Alphonse’s bushy moustache and the faint beginnings of a goatee grow thicker by the day, casting shadows on his baby looks, and I am unable to do anything about it.
For many young people with autism, personal hygiene and grooming become stickier issues with the arrival of puberty and adolescence. When Alphonse was a little boy, these issues were easily circumvented by supervision, assistance, or direct intervention and manual (hand-over-hand) instruction by his parents and caregivers. But with the many changes that herald the onset of adolescence comes a host of challenges secondary to a young person with autism’s difficulties in cognition and understanding, multiple sensory issues, and uneven levels of independence. Where once it was deemed “doable,” adolescence introduced extra difficulties; it is no longer as easy as bundling Alphonse up in a towel to brush his teeth or comb his hair straight. Parents like me have to contend with size and the disproportionally strong resistance that comes with this increase in size.
Alphonse is 16. In the past few months, growth of his facial and body hair has become noticeably faster and thicker. From pictures as recent as eight months ago, it is apparent that wisps of baby fuzz have now been replaced by man hair- and lots of it- in his upper lip and chin, in his armpits, and even in his pubic area.
Body hair is just one of the many physical changes that come into play at this time. For some, body odor is also a new and disconcerting development. Acne becomes a serious problem for others. Alphonse and other young men like him still have it a little easier, though, as young women face menstruation and its accompanying hygiene issues. For parents, however, the difficulties rest in more than just the physical changes. At every turn of this fascinating period come emotional lability and confusion, particularly for those with more profound disabilities.
I can speak only for my son, who has severe autism and requires major supervision in all activities of daily living. It is a blessing that Alphonse has a great affinity for water, so coaxing him to bathe is not such a difficult thing. It helps that he already has his own schedule for it (three times a day, plus after every “play water” session, probably ten times a day all in all).
To manage the occasional sweating (he has very little body odor), Alphonse has learned how to use a deodorant spray. Sticky roll-ons were out; Alphonse held up his arms the first time we tried, his face etched with disgust at the feeling of wetness in his armpits. Deodorant sticks were also ruled out; they were too easily mangled and mashed. Teaching him to control the spray nozzle was a tricky thing, but he did it after endless practice. Nowadays, he no longer accidentally shoots us in the eye with his deodorant spray.
Quite luckily, Alphonse is not prone to breakouts, unlike his older brother. (Another issue avoided.) I shudder at the thought of his nails scraping and scratching through them, as he is wont to do when it comes to mosquito bites and small abrasions. When he does have them, we treat them when he is asleep, using drying agents like benzoyl peroxide and/or topical antibiotics.
Our biggest issue these days is still facial and body hair. Often, they irritate him and make him scratch. Sometimes, he even picks at them, pulling them out by the roots. Moreover, thick facial hair is unsightly and presents difficulties for the not-so-conscientious eater like him. After meals, he sometimes has bits of food left hanging over the edges of his whiskers.
The easiest way to solve this would be to shave him, but how?
Shaving with a manual razor could mean accidental cuts and gashes for a person who would not sit still for long. Using an electric shaver with smooth edges would diminish the potential for nicks and cuts, true. But uh-oh, the sound of electric shavers makes him anxious and more liable to throw a tantrum. (He has had issues with the hair dryer for years.) Will depilatory creams work?
Then again, do we even need to shave him at all? Here’s where you vote and tell us what you think.
He looks really cute and clean.
Clean is in.
Or not to shave…
Leave him alone, woman!
So what if he has food in his whiskers, ehr, moustache?