Yesterday my son went for his back to school haircut. And we made it! That’s a big statement when Autism is in the mix, because oftentimes, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder like my son have challenges with noise, other people and many other factors that can make haircuts anxiety-inducing events for parents, kids and hairstylists.
After many years of having his hair cut at home by my mother-in-law (at night while he was sleeping – a tricky operation!), I started taking my son to a salon to get hair cuts at around the age of 6. He’s about to turn 11 and has been receiving regular haircuts since then. Before I get into the tips I’ve learned to manage successful haircuts and autism, I have to tell you this: it does get better!
My son was a worst case scenario when it came to getting haircuts. Before he received a diagnosis of Autism, haircuts were generally a difficult situation. As a baby he got his hair cut at a salon once and it was a total disaster! After that experience I was okay with him growing his hair long – and he could totally have rocked that look! In fact, a couple of boys in his classroom do rock long locks for precisely that reason.
We went along with night time haircuts for a long time, and my son’s hair pretty much looked like this for his entire toddlerhood and early childhood. I tried taking him to salons on a couple of occasions and he pretty much ran out the doors as soon as we walked in! Vacuums and loud noises are anxiety triggers for my son, so I’m sure hearing razors and vacuums cleaning up hair were the last thing he wanted to experience!
I moved further away from my in-laws, so night time hair cuts were out of the question and I didn’t feel confident wielding a pair of scissors on his gloriously thick mane. Also, I really wanted my son to conquer his fear of salon haircuts and get comfortable with them. When he’s an adult he might have to handle his hair on his own, so this is laying the groundwork for his future.
So, I started asking around to other autism parents, teacher and therapists and learned about a local private school for autistic kids that offers haircuts by a professional stylist once a month. I booked an appointment right away ! The cut took place in a quiet room and everything was very comfortable. The only mishap? There was a vacuum in the room! After that trigger was removed, the hairstylist took her time showing my son where he would sit, talking him through the process and letting him see her shears and hear the razor before she used them. The appointment was a huge success and a major victory!
I didn’t end up going back to this school because it’s a distance away with lots of traffic involved and the appointments were not always convenient with our schedule. Next. I was referred to a hairstylist friend our ABA therapist who had a son with autism and understood the complexities that go along with haircuts. The appointment went well but, again, I didn’t go because the traffic to her salon is challenging and our schedules didn’t match.
In desperation I went to a nearby Sports Clips, a chain salon that specializes in haircuts for men, which has been our main salon for the last few years. The first haircut was a bit of a challenge! Despite the ambient noise from other customers, the razors, hair dryers and vacuums, my son managed to get the first haircut and subsequent haircuts successfully.
With my son unknowns lead to meltdowns, so my goal with his haircuts (and most things in life) is to prepare him in advance. Here are a few tips that have helped us and I hope help anyone who is in the same situation.
1 – Ask Around
If you need help figuring out where to go in the first place, ask around. Ask other autism parents, teachers and therapists if they know of any hairstylists that are comfortable working with autistic kids. That’s how I found out about the school that offers haircuts once a month and it was the best thing ever!
2 – Call Ahead
If you’re going to a chain salon, call ahead and ask if there is a specific stylist that is good with kids. Explain your situation. I’ve never had anyone turn us down, except for a stylist who told me she wasn’t proficient with kid’s haircuts, which I totally understood and respected. Also, ask which times are the least busy so you can plan your schedule accordingly.
3 – Prepare
Prepare your child well in advance. Talk about getting the haircut for about a week before it actually happens. Show your child the date on the calendar – don’t make it a surprise at all. My son’s ABA therapist recommended writing social stories, which are scenarios that you can show your child. My son loves watching Ryan’s Toy Review on YouTube and watched his haircut videos so much that he requested getting a haircut.
4 – Consistency
Be consistent with the location and stylist. My son doesn’t always see the same stylist, but he knows most of the people who work at the salon. Honestly, I don’t always tell them my son has autism, but if it’s a new stylist I’ll take them aside and quietly tell them my son has autism, he’s good at following directions and he needs a little patience. Our salon offers online reservations which I’m going to take advantage of to minimize our wait.
5 – Rewards
Bring rewards. One strategy that works well with my son is earning rewards from good behavior. If he sits through a haircut he will earn ice cream from the ice cream store two doors down from the salon.
6 – Tunnel Vision And Patience
And, finally, for parents, my best advice is to have tunnel vision and patience. There will be other people in the salon who will look at you and your child. It’s going to happen! The most important thing is to keep your peace. As much as you may want to cry (been there), tune everything else out. Tunnel vision. Stay back away from your child and hairstylist as much as you can. I am a professional helicopter parent and learned the hard way that staying a bit away is the best policy.
I hope our story and these tips encourage you. If anything, don’t let your hopes fade – if my son can get through haircuts, anything is possible!