Imagine back to when you were a child. You are being taken somewhere for the first time. You don’t know what to expect. You are shown into a room with a chair and told to sit in it. You have sensitive ears and there is a horrible buzzing noise you haven’t heard before. You put your hands over your ears to stop the noise. There is a really strong smell that is hurting your head.
You are told to lean back, it hurts your neck. Suddenly a stranger is spraying water on your head and rubbing your hair. You are sensitive to touch and this causes you pain. You start to cry and are told not to be silly but you aren’t being silly.
Imagine you have gone through all that and you are now sat on another chair. You dont know whats going to happen. You have an itchy towel round your neck that you don’t want to be there and a black cape that isn’t yours and looks and feels strange. There are bright lights reflecting from the mirror in front of you that hurt your eyes.
Suddenly another stranger comes up too close behind you with a pair of sharp scissors! You are scared and start to try to get away.
What happens next is horrible. The scissors cut your hair. The hair falls on your neck and it doesn’t feel nice. The noise of the scissors goes through you and the touch on your head is hurting. It starts to get too much.
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, that buzzing noise starts again! This time is is louder, closer, touching your head! It scratches. It hurts. You try to put your hands over your ears to stop the noise but you aren’t allowed. It’s too much!
My son has sported some interesting looks over the years due to his absolute detest of the barbers!
We have tried everything and had quite a few disasters.
We had the mad professor look one Christmas! This was due to a complete barber refusal. When I saw the pictures I tried to cut it myself but ended up following him round the floor for two hours with a pair of kitchen scissors and achieving a masterpiece I call haystack!
We had a hairdresser when he was little who was flexible enough to come to the house during the day and follow him around cutting his hair as he watched his trains.
Now he is 11, he just about manages the barbers, although he is still convinced he doesn’t ever need it cutting and it takes at least a month’s notice and daily reminders that the haircut is coming up to get him to accept it.
But why has it always been such a big deal?
Its down to a few things.
Firstly he really struggles with change and cutting his hair is not only a change but a change that makes him look different which he really doesn’t like. He also gets very anxious about what other people might say or if they will ask him about his hair being different.
Secondly it’s a sensory experience he can’t stand. Generally having someone touch his hair is hard for him so you can imagine the noise of the clippers hurting his ears, the feel of the clippers, the comb, the water spray and the brush are horrible for him.
Thirdly there is the social demand of a stranger asking him questions about holidays that he doesn’t know how to answer along with being sat in a chair, possibly even with the perceived audience of the rest of the customers waiting.
The haircut subject is one I bring up far less often than necessary as the whole experience is extremely hard work. He does need his haircut now but we should be able to leave it until Christmas!
Hair cuts can be a very difficult thing to endure for a child with autism or sensory processing disorders. So what can we do to help? Here are some ideas for preparing for a trip to the hairdressers and barbers:
Warn about the haircut in advance
Some children may need a lot of notice to help them prepare for a haircut. Rather than springing a haircut on a child unexpectedly, it may be useful to mark the haircut on a calendar and talk about when it will be happening so that the child is aware of when it will be taking place.
Prepare in advance
You may find your child would benefit from a social story about having their hair cut so they know what to expect.
It may also help to role play hair cuts or introduce the idea by giving a doll a haircut and playing haircuts in the days before you go. Remember to talk about the noises, smells and sensory feelings as you play.
Choose your appointment time carefully.
Ask when they are least busy and try to go then.
We always went during school hours in the middle of the morning. Yes that does mean my son missed school for haircuts, but it made the experience easier for him as we went when the barbers was empty.
Prepare the hairdresser!
When you book the appointment inform them of your child’s sensory needs and anxieties surrounding having their haircut. They might be able to help.
My son had one barber who went at superspeed for him and we were in and out in two minutes. We had one who didn’t use clippers. We even had one hairdresser that followed my son round my house cutting his hair as she went!
Plan a treat or prize for after the haircut
If your child works with visual timetables then have one prepared with the task before the haircut, then the haircut and then the treat.
If your child will understand the concept then keep reminding them that after we get your haircut then we will …
Ask the hairdresser to explain
Get the hairdresser to tell your child what they are doing and why. Get them to warn your child before they move on to the next thing.
If your child responds well to visual cues then maybe take some pictures and show your child the next thing before it happens.
Hold your child
If you are allowed and your child is small enough then it may help to have them sit on your lap to have their hair cut.
Watch a haircut
If your child has a sibling then consider taking them to watch the sibling have a haircut a few days before. If this isn’t possible consider watching videos of hair cuts with your child.
Consider taking a hand held screen for your child or favourite toys to provide distraction while their hair is being cut. Even a stress ball may be useful.
You could also take in the ear headphones or ear plugs if your child will wear them, to help with the noise.
If your child has to have their hair washed before the haircut but finds this difficult then consider washing their hair before you go, asking the hairdresser for a dry cut or to use a water spray instead of taking their own shampoo and towel.
Change of clothes
Consider taking a different top to change into after the haircut if you think your child will be irritated by loose hairs.
If you are facing taking your child for a haircut in the near future then I hope the above ideas help you!
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