Feb 27, 2013 1 Share

The Smell of Success

Illustration of woman walking away in disgust from man with body odor.

Recently here in my little corner of the special education world, I have been spending inordinate amounts of time pondering an issue never once addressed in a single one of my graduate-level special education classes. That issue is (drum roll please….) body odor. Yes, that’s right. Several years and thousands of dollars worth of tuition, not to mention years of practical experience, and I am stumped. So perhaps if I put these thoughts out there for public consumption, either the answer will come to me or one of you may have an idea for a solution not yet attempted. Here’s hoping.

I have any number of students who, on any given day, are not going to pass muster as workers in the community. Because let’s face it, how an employee looks—and smells—matters. In some cases, the students are simply still a bit too young to appreciate the importance of “dressing for success,” and this is one of the lessons we strive to teach. Others get it, but are still working on internalizing and generalizing, so it’s a process. But then there is that select group, that should get it by now, and don’t. And when I say they don’t, I mean that I have spent more time than I thought possible jumping through every possible educational hoop I can think of to get the message of why it matters through to them. In more than one case, there is complete denial on the part of the student that there is any issue that needs to be addressed in the first place, which makes things that much more difficult. I would guess that we all get used to certain sensory input, including smell, and after a while the aberrant becomes the norm. Unfortunately, in these cases, I find that this is where social learning deficits rear their ugly heads. These young people just don’t get it. If there’s an odor and it’s not bothering them, then why should it bother anyone else? It would seem that’s the part creating the biggest stumbling block the educational team is facing here.

Like so many situations that come up for me as an educator, I have had the pleasure of living the lesson first-hand. Looking back, I have very clear recollections of how atrocious my personal hygiene was when I was younger. Worse to admit still, I know how easy it would be to fall back into old patterns under the “right” circumstances—too much unstructured time, depression, anxiety—none of which make navigating the social world any less challenging for Aspies such as myself. I have (finally!) come to a point where I can just “get it,” that I have to shower every day no matter what because that’s what’s expected. And lo and behold, it actually does feel better to be clean than dirty! I remember too, the unpleasant sensory input I would actually get from my hair when it was unwashed. I look back now and wonder how I stood it, but that question exists side-by-side with the memory of how at the time, all was good. What I don’t recall is anyone ever calling me out on my less-than-optimal self-care. And in the end I believe that probably did do me more harm than good, because part of what makes it so very easy for such yucky habits to become ingrained is when no one points the yuckiness out to you and you cannot see it for yourself.

So I suppose, having said all that, at least a part of my solution for the current situation where I get to see things from the other side of the street, is to keep the conversation going. I want these students to continue to see me as someone they can trust, but not if it means that I fail to do what I was brought here to do—teach.

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Hi Judy.  I really like your post.  Unfortunately for you, I think you are going to be fighting an uphill battle with your students if you can't get their parents on board to make daily showering and other general hygiene practices part of their children's daily routine.  In my opinion, it has to start early in their lives and be continually worked on for many years for it to become, as you learned yourself, just part of your daily routine. I don't know what age you are teaching, but from what you wrote, it sounds like middle schoolers or older.  You are in a tight spot, I think.  Maybe putting something in the children's IEP would be a way for you to reach out to their parents to indicate how important this is for their children's future "out in the world" whether actually joining the work force is part of their future or not.  Maybe some "goals" in the IEP would tune everyone in (including the student) regarding how important this subject matter is.  And, I do think it is important just as you do.  Not only regarding employement, but our children's health.  As a mom of an adult autistic, I know how hard it is to introduce a new step or activity into the daily routine of someone who has autism, but I also know it can be done.My son shaves, showers, usese deodorant, brushes his teeth, and puts clean clothes on every day.  It did not happen overnight, but he did learn to do it all in stages.  Good luck to you.  You sound like a very caring teacher.