The Autism Blog

Autism and Getting a Haircut

July 12, 2013

Very young kids are not known for their ability to sit still. Understandably, parents get a little stressed when an adult with a sharp instrument attempts to cut those sweet baby locks.  After the age of three or four though, most parents can reasonably expect that their child will be able to handle a haircut. For kids with autism who have sensory challenges, it can take years of practice before that tolerance is achieved.

Why is getting a haircut so difficult for kids with autism?

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have thought to myself or said to her, “I wish I could get inside your body and see what you see, hear what you hear, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, feel what you feel”.  If that was possible, I might be better able to address what makes so many things odious to her.  Short of that, I try to imagine what her perceptions are in different situations.  In anticipation of a haircut, for example I might ask myself:

Will she remember Miss Jodi, the miracle-worker who cuts her hair? Does she remember what we’re about to do to her?  What must it feel like to have her head sprayed with the water bottle? To have a comb pulled through her hair? To have scissors so close to her head?

I do know that her head is ultra-sensitive so she must experience this as uncomfortable, even painful, perhaps like a rake across her scalp.

I also have to remind myself that she doesn’t care if her hair is long or short, stylish or not. The bottom line is that there is nothing in this for her, no intrinsic motivation to cooperate.

What’s a parent of a kid with autism supposed to do?

In our early days, it felt as if this would never get easier. We’d take her in, knowing it would be a battle. She’d refuse to sit in the chair so her dad would hold her in his lap. She wouldn’t wear the apron so all of us were covered in hair. She’d dodge and weave when Jodi got close and raise her hand to block the scissors with each of Jodi’s attempts. We’d have to hold her hands and legs to keep everyone safe. It was stressful for all, but somehow, some way, Jodi carefully and skillfully got it done. Exhausted, but relieved, we’d reassure each other that this would get easier the more we did it. After each haircut, we’d also debrief on what seemed to get better, what was still difficult, what we might have done differently?

What have we learned about haircuts for our kid with autism?

We’ve been doing this for many years now so we’ve learned what is helpful and what isn’t. For example, we know that telling her, “This won’t hurt” or “It’s just a haircut” doesn’t help. Neither does our own anxiety. What has helped is trying to understand what is hard for her, planning ahead to figure out how to make it easier, good communication and flexibility with each other before, during and after the haircut, and as with most things with our kids, lots of practice.

Tips for Haircuts

While every child is different, I offer some tips on what we have done to be more successful and invite you to share your tips with your fellow parents.

Plan ahead

This is critical! It’s not likely that you will walk into a salon and have success without it. Think through a plan for your child’s specific needs. If she responds well to visual schedules or social stories, use these to help prepare for what’s ahead. You might arrange with the stylist to visit the salon for a meet-and-greet before the actual haircut appointment. You can also practice at home with combing, brushing and pretending to cut with child scissors. You might use your own hair or a doll to show what is done.

Find a good stylist

As autism awareness increases, more people have some understanding of our kids. Take the time to find someone who has worked with kids with autism. Ask your child’s teacher, other parents, parent listserv and resource lists. You might find someone who has an at-home salon or who is willing to go to your home. This can be much less stressful than a large, noisy salon. Find someone who listens to you and does what you ask. If you know your child won’t lean back for a shampoo, the stylist should be willing to forego that.

Have a plan

Over the years, we have developed and revised our plan as she has gotten more comfortable. One thing we continue to do is to wash her hair just before the haircut so I get any tangles out and her hair is wet when we arrive. I make sure she has eaten and gone to the bathroom before we leave. I have learned to space difficult things out after one week where she had a haircut, a dentist visit and a blood draw. I would not recommend that. That week did all of us in!

Start early

Putting it off isn’t going to make it any easier. Haircuts are part of life.

Go regularly

This may seem counter-intuitive. Why go often if it is so challenging? The answer is that it’s easier to give a trim than to cut six month’s worth of growth. And the more you do it, the more familiar it will become.

Be creative

You know your child best. What works well in other situations that are problematic? Is there anything that your child can hold, look at to make it easier? Is there a small reward you can offer when compliant with a step or when done that will reinforce the positive effort? Be thoughtful in how you use rewards/reinforcement.

Be patient

Success comes in small steps. Instead of expecting her to fully cooperate each and every time, I set my expectation that she’d get more comfortable and compliant with the components of the whole process. First was sitting in the chair. That seemed to be the most important part, although for years, Jodi cut her hair while she stood and paced the room! The other parts came in time – wearing the apron, keeping her hands and legs still while her hair was wet, combed and cut.

Be realistic

If you set your expectations too high, you will be disappointed. Instead, set realistic goals and celebrate each step of the way.

Sweet Success

My daughter had a haircut last week and she did amazingly well! Keeping her hair out of her eyes has always been a problem, but she hadn’t been able to sit still enough to do bangs or much more than a trim. Because she is doing so much better, we finally decided to go much shorter. My husband took her and she sat still in the chair with the apron on for a full 25 minutes. She has the cutest new “do” for summer. We are so very proud of her and grateful for Miss Jodi!