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Treating Lice on Children with Autism

October 13, 2023

The treatment of lice is one of the primary reasons the insects are such an irritating pest. On their own, the creatures are itchy and annoying, and treating them is an extensive and time-consuming process. Treating them on your children is even more difficult, and if your child is sensory sensitive, it can be agonizing for both of you.

Treating Lice on Children with Autism

In this article, we’ll discuss how to treat lice on your child, using a non-toxic, limited-sensory, and, most importantly, fast approach that’s just as effective as any other method, if not more so.

What Are Lice?

Head lice are small insects that live on other creatures, like humans, feeding on blood on the scalp several times a day. It sounds gross (because it is a little gross) and it’s also the reason they are so pesky, as their constant biting causes extreme itchiness. Even worse, they also lay “nits,” or eggs, close to the scalp.

Not only are they painful and irritating, but they also spread extremely quickly, which is why even if your child has the cleanest hair in town, it can’t protect him/her from head lice if anyone he/she is in contact with has the insects on them, especially playmates. The Center for Disease Control estimates that up to twelve million children between ages 3 and 12 in the United States contract lice each year.

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Finding the Problem Early

While it’s not always possible, there are some ways to get ahead of your child’s lice problem before they invade the whole house. First, check for symptoms regularly. This doesn’t mean checking your child’s scalp every day, which can be particularly challenging for your sensory sensitive child. Instead, be on the lookout for red bumps on the head, neck, and shoulders, as well as difficulty sleeping, since the insects are most active during the night. Lice can also cause swollen lymph nodes if the bites become infected.

Obviously, if you do want to check your child’s head for lice, it’s not a bad idea, and it doesn’t have to be a huge effort that takes up much time and energy. Simply get a powerful flashlight (your phone light works, too) and point it past the hair and directly on the scalp. You should notice pretty quickly; lice are brown sesame seed-sized insects. The nits are tiny white specks.

While they all function similarly, there are a few various types of lice. Over the years, the insects have become increasingly resistant to many shampoos and chemicals used against them, leading to new breakouts and techniques; there is even a new classification known as Super Lice.

Treatment Protocols

Before you get started eliminating lice, you don’t need to panic. Lice are not dangerous, as they don’t carry diseases; they’re just annoying. While they keep your child out of school and cause discomfort, they won’t do any lasting damage.

Because lice are both small and invasive, their treatment takes a lot of detailed effort. Many lice products are full of toxic chemicals and should be avoided. Some lice have become immune to one of the most popular pesticides: anticholinesterase.

When it comes to lice shampoos, you can look for dimethicone—which coats the lice but does not kill the nits—or enzyme treatments. Both of these accomplish the same goal: killing the lice and making the eggs or nits easier to remove. Finally, you’ll also need a lice comb to get rid of the nits. Learning about non-toxic methods is a good idea beforehand.

Even the process of bathing, shampooing, and combing can be too overwhelming for children with autism, however. Luckily, there are other lice products such as electric combs that are safe, quiet, and effective. These combs zap lice on contact without hurting your child, significantly cutting the time and effort necessary for treating the lice.

Now that you know how to treat lice, it’s important to also learn how best to go about getting rid of them when your child has sensory sensitivity because of special needs like autism or SPD. While this adds another level of challenge, it’s still completely doable; it just requires more care.

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One of the best places to start is by using a detangler, which will make your child’s hair much more manageable, with fewer knots and tangles to encounter when you comb through repeatedly looking for nits. Whether you’re shampooing and brushing or using an electric comb, the less pulling and tugging, the better! Detanglers speed up the process, making sure your child isn’t stressed or anxious, or if they are, it’s not for nearly as long.

After the detangler has been applied, you can also start by illustrating what you’re about to do on someone else in the home, like a sibling or parent. This helps your child understand what’s happening is nothing to be afraid of, even if it may feel intense to them. Depending on the child’s age, you can also show him/her the tools you’ll be using, like the comb and special shampoo, even taking the time to let him/her smell it in advance.

Next, it’s recommended you try to reduce noise and distractions in the room, such as other siblings playing or making noise. For children on the spectrum, it’s easy to get overstimulated, and the scalp is highly sensitive to begin with. When a fine-toothed lice comb is being run through your child’s hair repeatedly, it’s a good idea to remove other stimuli.

Other Factors

Each child is different. Some children may have a better time during the process with other distractions in the room like a TV show or movie. If your child isn’t soothed by screens but likes having something to hold, give him/her a toy like a fidget spinner he/she can use over and over again but doesn’t require him/her to move around.

Younger children with ASD might not be overstimulated but instead could get anxious or upset. We recommend using a doll to show the child exactly how the comb works so he/she understands that even though it might feel intense, it’s not such a big deal.

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Additionally, children with autism may be particularly sensitive to fragrances. When seeking out your non-toxic lice shampoo, it might be a good idea to look for unscented brands or check out the electric lice combs.

The most important thing is that you respect your child’s specific needs. If he/she is overwhelmed or anxious, take breaks and utilize other stimuli to relax him/her. Using non-toxic, efficient techniques is the best way to treat your child.

This article was featured in Issue 100 – Best Tools And Strategies For Autism

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