For children with autism, and their parents, haircuts are often a battle. Many with autism have hypersensitivities which can make haircuts uncomfortable or painful. Besides disliking or feeling pain when someone is touching their heads, children with autism may have a hard time with:
- The sounds and smells at a barber shop or hair salon
- Feeling overwhelmed at the new environment
- The sound of the electric razor so close to his head
- The lighting inside the barber shop or hair salon
These are some common problem areas. Your child may find haircuts intolerable for different reasons. Meltdowns during haircuts, even when given at home, are common.
The following tips might make haircut day a little easier:
- If possible, wash and condition your child’s hair before the haircut. Clean, dry and unknotted hair is much easier to cut. For those children who have a meltdown during shampoos, try placing a little unscented shampoo on a washcloth and rubbing it on their head. Do the same with clean water to rinse out the soap. Use a comb-in conditioner to help release any knots.
- Think about what time of day your child is least overwhelmed. For some, this might be first thing in the morning, for others, they may feel most in control in the afternoon. Use your child’s behaviors during different times to guide you when setting an appointment or going to the barber shop. Avoid going for a haircut immediately after school or other activities or at times when your child is tired or ill.
- Plan haircuts for the same time and day each time. Use the same barber shop or hair salon and request the same stylist. Routines are important.
- Plan a favorite activity for after the haircut. Your child may be more apt to sit quietly through the haircut if he knows he is going to do something he enjoys when he is done. Remind him what you will be doing before and during the haircut.
- Call the barber shop or salon ahead of time to talk with the person who will be cutting your child’s hair. Let him or her know your child has autism and provide some information on how your child reacts to haircuts. Let him or her know what things will help keep your child calm. If you are using the same stylist each time, this is only going to be necessary the first time.
- Explain what is going to happen prior to the haircut. Use a doll or teddy bear to demonstrate the process, starting with sitting in the chair and having a towel or cape draped. Use toy clippers or scissors to show what will happen during the haircut. Start several days ahead of time, giving your child time to play act the haircut several times before the appointment.
- Create a visual schedule for the entire process. Begin with leaving your home, checking in at the salon, sitting in the chair, getting the haircut and the after-haircut activity.
- During the haircut, observe your child to see what may be making him uncomfortable. Identifying possible triggers to meltdowns helps you take steps to reduce the potential problems during future haircuts.
- Ask the barber or stylist to shape the sides, front and back first. That way, if your child cannot tolerate a complete haircut, he will still look as if he had a haircut.
- If your child is hypersensitive to sounds and the buzzing razor or snapping of scissors is bothersome, bring along some earplugs or use an IPod and headphones to block out the noise.
- Keep hairstyles simple to reduce the time needed to complete the haircut.
Some parents of children with autism find the experience of heading to the barber shop or hair salon too overwhelming for their child and have opted to cut their hair at home. If so, invest in a good set of clippers or scissors to reduce the time spent on the haircut. Be sure to cover your child with a towel as the small, cut pieces of hair can be a source of discontent.
Whether you decide to go out to get a haircut or cut your child’s hair at home, remember to praise your child, for example, "Good job sitting still." And once the haircut is over, let him or her know how great it looks. You might want to take a before and after photo to show the difference.
"Haircutting Training Guide," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, AutismSpeaks.org
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.