Life with Autism: Having a Haircut

It is the time I dread…the haircut. J has really thick hair that just grows so fast. He also has a double crown so ends up looking like a cockerel.

J does not like his hair being cut. He doesn’t even like it being touched, unless it’s on his terms. I tend to leave it until it really needs doing as it’s just a fight we can do without.

Today we did something amazing and J had his cut IN A SALON. The most amazing thing is that everyone survived. So I thought I’d share some advise on helping your child to have the dreaded hair cut.

Location

J’s first couple of hair cuts was in a barbers next to the train station. It was small, you can go see the trains and it had a good reputation. The first cut went ok. This was when he was 1, and a lot of his sensory issues hadn’t kicked in yet. The next ended up a wonky mess as he wouldn’t keep his head anywhere near the barber.

So we tried a mobile hairdresser. She did it in her van which I thought J would love as he was in his ‘wheels’ obsession at that time. Nope, the hairdresser managed a general trim but no more. After this I decided to try having the haircuts in our own home. My sister was a hairdresser so we got her to have a try. I thought that the familiar setting and familiar person might help…nope. It was a battle yet again.

So I realised that location didn’t make such a difference. It was the whole sensory nature and the unpredictability of it all that set J off. However, location does need to be considered depending on your child’s needs:

  • Size (do they need lots of space? Do they prefer to feel enclosed?)
  • Distractions (is it somewhere too loud? Is something outside going to be more attractive to them?)
  • Predictability (do they know what happens in that place?)

Today we went to the hairdressers at the local shopping precinct. J knows it’s a hairdressers. There’s photos of hairstyles and you can see in the windows. His Grandma and Great Grandad go there for their haircuts…to be honest I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. J knew it was somewhere you go to have your hair done. He knew all the shops surrounding it. I think this predictability helped him.

Timing

For J, he is like an jar of marbles. Everything he does and feels uses a marble…sometimes two. Once the jar is empty there’s nothing left to give and that leaves him in meltdown or shutdown territory. So I have to be careful how much we do in one day and when we do them.

I booked the hairdressers for the morning. His jar was full of marbles so he was happy. He hasn’t had to deal with lots of people, noise and touch yet so wasn’t already on alert.

For other children you may want to time it for the end of the day so they can go home and have sensory ‘downtime’, or you may want to time it for when the salon/barbers is quiet. You might find after school better than weekends, or that weekends when there’s no school/nursery the next day works better. Go with your expertise of your child.

Preparation

With J, preparation is key. You can’t just spring things on him. He likes predictability and routine. The day before his appointment we went in for a look around. He got to swivel on the chair, look at the decorations, see the people and the smells. He didn’t have to worry about anyone touching his hair as it was a ‘look around’.

We spoke about it more at home and I said he was going for his hair cut the next morning. I used his visual timetable to let him know from the moment he got downstairs where we were going and why.

We got to the precinct early so J could run around, look at the hairdressers from the outside and pop to the newsagent for a magazine. It gave J time to emotionally prepare.

Another thing that helped was that the stylist let J feel and try each of the clippers before he used them. This way J knew what was coming. He still tensed up and out his hand up to cover his hair but he stayed in the chair.

Distractions

Distractions are great and if you choose them correctly can give your child something else to focus on. For J I was armed with my phone (to play games), snacks, toy cars and his magazine he had chosen.

The stylist was great and would talk about the magazine. J was busy showing him pictures and naming the different characters so he was a lot calmer (he still tried to move away from the clippers and scissors but could be distracted enough that the stylist didn’t have to stop). Once the magazine stopped working I gave him some of his snacks and then his toys cars that he ran up and down the arm of the chair.

The stylist was amazing. He did his own distraction techniques. Every couple of minutes he would turn the chair to a different position. He would comment about the things on the wall, or the staff, which would redirect J’s attention.

Sensory awareness

Having a haircut is a huge sensory experience. There’s different sounds and textures. There can be temperature changes depending on what equipment is on or being used. There’s a lot of smells that may be new and different.

J is sensitive to touch. The stylist was careful not to ‘over touch’ his hair/head. He focused on letting the clippers lightly take off the hair, and sane with the scissors. He did faff about moving and combing the hair over and over, he just got on with it.

J also hates hair touching him. The stylist made sure he had a slightly damp cloth and wiped away hair regularly. This way J didn’t see or have to feel it for long. At the end he used the hairdryer to blow away any left over hair. J loves the hairdryer (well, he loves the windy feeling) so this amused him.

Other ideas to try are:

  • Ask for the brush/comb to be sprayed, not the child’s hair/head.
  • Have ear defenders if auditory sensitive.
  • Take sensory toys to squeeze, light up toys to watch, vibrating toys to take he focus off the vibrations from the clippers etc.
  • Ask to be turned away from the mirror. Sometimes children with autism struggle with mirrors at it can be similar to the struggles of eye contact. Also, if they can see what’s happening it may add to the anxiety.
  • Every now and then spin or move the chair. If children are vestibular sensory seekers then the movement will help to settle them (this worked well for J).

Today J was the calmest I’ve ever seen him during a haircut. He had a proper cut and looks so grown up. Once the hairdresser was finished J took it literally and was ready to just leave and move on to building the lego from his magazine (luckily Grandma came with us so she took him straight out to the car so I could pay). It has meant that he has been very sensory sensitive for the rest of the day. Luckily it was Tumble Tots day so he could have physical time and have the sensory seeking opportunity he needed.

Then I stupidly took him to the supermarket this afternoon which was just a step too far and we had a giant meltdown because they announced that till 8 was closing and that’s the only till he wanted us to go to (we hadn’t even finished shopping). So my advice is not to be fooled into thinking that just because your child tolerated the hairdresser meant it didn’t affect them…because it did!

I would love to hear what has or hasn’t worked for you. I’d love to think that we have found a system that works for us but you never know until the next time. If I can have an arsenal of ideas or things to avoid it will be very helpful! Let me know in the comments, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram x

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Baffledmum says:

    Yes, preparation is the key in any new experience for those with autism… Well done J! X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Thanks, I realized I didn’t prepare myself very well. I didn’t have a hairdresser symbol so had to very quickly draw one. I definitely don’t have a future as an artist haha x

      Liked by 1 person

  2. happysawyer says:

    Well done for braving this! My son also hates having his hair cut. We have recently found a local barber who by some miracle knows a lot about his current obsession (Super Mario). The first time we used him I could have cried with relief!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      It’s such an amazing feeling isn’t it! I get teary eyed thinking about how well it went. Fingers crossed it continues on future visits z

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Really like this story. We have always cut my little ones hair at home. (The classic all over gauge 5). He hated it. It was a massive struggle every time and everyone ended up stressed and covered in hair. Last time however we had discovered calming clippers (basically manual clippers) made such a difference. Still wasn’t enjoyable for him but not as stressful. I hope your method works next time and because a routine for J.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      I booked his next cut for a couple of weeks time and the amazing hairdresser has RETIRED! I asked them to let the new hairdresser know about him so fingers crossed x

      Like

      1. Wow. That’s bad timing. Hopefully J will like the new hairdresser and maybe they will be young enough to do his hair for decades to come

        Liked by 1 person

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