Visiting a hairdresser can actually be pretty stressful for a child with autism. For starters, it’s an unfamiliar place: you don’t go there very often and new often equals scary in the mind of your son or daughter. It’s also a bright, busy, noisy place full of strangers, mirrors and movement: the roar of the dryer, the smell of the shampoo, the hustle and bustle, all these can play in to sensory issues and leave the child feeling very uncomfortable. Being in this place for any length of time isn’t appealing; being expected to sit still and wait for their appointment may be more than they can take.
And that’s before we get into the actual process of having your hair cut. Children with autism aren’t always comfortable with physical contact, and even if they are, they may not understand why it’s being done to them: this makes for a pretty intimidating experience.
Added to this, the hairdresser’s tools each have their own horrors. The noise of clippers and dryer can hurt sensitive ears. Brushing and combing may upset a sensitive scalp, feeling more like having your hair yanked than tidied. And as for scissors – if you’ve ever accidentally nicked your child’s finger or toe while cutting their nails then they may regard scissors as fearful devices: pain is scary, and children with autism can stay afraid for a long, long time. Even if you can get your child to stay still long enough for the hair to start getting cut, the sensation of the cut bits falling on their skin can be maddening.
What should I do?
You might just choose to let the haircuts go for a while. It’s easier to get away with this if your child is a girl, as long hair doesn’t call extra attention to them (though brushing it can be a whole other set of conflicts), but as leaving your son with long hair means accepting that he may look different from other boys his age.
Leaving the social issues aside, in the long term being unable to get a haircut is quite inconvenient; it’s better if it’s at least an option. So, what can you do to make it work?
First of all, prepare your child
The more unfamiliar the environment the more frightened they’ll be, so give them as much information as you can. For instance:
- Let them visit the hairdressers a few times just to look around. If that’s not possible, pass the place on your route several times so the area isn’t too unfamiliar.
- Explain to them what a haircut involves. Even if they’re non-verbal, you can make some headway with this: use photographs and simple language.
- Consider a social story. This is a simple first-person narration that models something you want your child to understand: ‘When my hair gets very long, it gets tangled and looks messy. It is hard to keep clean, and I do not look very nice. To make my hair tidy again, I can go to the hairdressers and have a haircut. This will happen, then that will happen… I can be calm and let the hairdresser cut my hair. I will look very smart and my hair will feel more comfortable.’
- Let them play with scissors. Do it supervised, of course, but let them have a go cutting paper or fabric so they experience scissors from the less scary end.
- Let them watch someone having a haircut, either in real life or in a video, so they can understand what’s involved and feel less frightened.
- If you think it would work, you might try a few practice cuts on your son or daughter’s hair yourself. If it’s a bad sensory experience for them then there’s no point making them suffer, but if the issue is mostly fear, it can help to have someone they love and trust doing it first to give them time to get used to the idea.
- If you’re not sure what, if any, sensory issues are at play, try doing a test-run for each part of the haircut separately. Does running a comb through their hair cause a problem? How about a spray from a mister? Not only is this informative for you; it allows your son or daughter to experience the steps one at a time, which might make them less overwhelming when they happen together.
- Use a visual schedule so your son or daughter knows when the haircut is going to be. Mark the day on the calendar, and maybe use a day schedule so they know what time it will be.
When it comes to the hairdresser, prepare the ground
- If you have a choice, pick a place that isn’t too bright and noisy.
- Talk to the staff before the day: explain your child has autism and what that involves, and ask them to be patient. If they’re cooperative, you can arrange pre-haircut visits, and possibly even let your son or daughter meet the person who’ll be cutting their hair so they’re not a total stranger.
- Avoid the busy times and book on a quiet day.
- Pick an appointment time where your son or daughter won’t already be tired or overwhelmed from a demanding day.
- Be as precise as you can about timing. Let the staff know that waiting is likely to cause problems, and for your part, do what you can to avoid turning up early.
- If hair washing is a problem, do it yourself at home before you go in. Clean, condition and brush, so the hairdresser has to do as little preparation as possible. Alternatively, if the problem is strong-smelling shampoo, you could bring your own brand from home.
- Pack a change of clothes. Children with autism can have hyper-sensitive skin, so if there are any hairs caught, they can wear something fresh and comfortable.
The haircut itself
- Pick a fairly simple style. The less time it takes to do, the quicker you can get out of there and the less time there is for your son or daughter to work up to meltdown.
- Ask approximately how long the haircut will take. That way, you can use a visual timer: you can show it to your son or daughter and tell them, ‘Finished in six minutes.’ You might also want to break the process down: one go on the timer for hair washing, one for hair cutting, one for hair drying, and so on.
- Try using a ‘Now’ and Next’ board, so your son or daughter can understand what’s going to happen as it happens.
- Either you or the hairdresser should talk through what’s going on. Pitch the language complexity to your son or daughter’s level of understanding, and let them know what’s going to happen. Be specific about this: ‘The hairdresser’s going to touch your head now’; ‘The chair is going to go up’; ‘The clippers are going to switch on’. Any change in the situation, give them a heads-up.
- Keep a set of earplugs and/or music headphones handy – not the kind that go over the head, but small, in-ear ones. If the noise gets too much, let your son or daughter use them to block it out.
- Keep a sharp eye out for signs of impending meltdown. If your son or daughter is really getting overloaded, better to stop with the haircut half done and try another day; that way the hairdresser’s is less associated with unbearable stress.
- Plan a favourite activity as a reward, or let them have access to a favourite toy such as a tablet computer. Use some good associations so that next time they need a haircut, they’ll know that there are at least some good parts to the experience.
Are there any resources I can use?
If you want to show your son or daughter what a haircut looks like, there is a good video on Snipits.
This Autism Support Network has a story following a particular parent’s experience with their son’s hair cutting experience as he grows up.
It can be frustrating when such a basic task as getting a haircut proves to have so many problems associated with it. It’s an area in life where sensory issues are often strongly at play, and you may need to be a bit of a negotiator with the hairdressers. Shop around until you find a place that’s sympathetic, prepare as much as you can, and don’t be too perfectionistic about the final result, and with time, it should get easier.