Does your child act out or tantrum during a haircut? As a mother of an adolescent child with autism, I can certainly identify with those of you whose children do not tolerate a full cut or trim very well. This article will hopefully lead to fewer tantrums during hair cutting and nail clipping time.
As our son reached his first birthday and beyond, his hair grew longer. So I braided his hair twice each week. He would lie down on my lap and fall asleep as I braided. He wore his hair this way until shortly after his third birthday.
With all the combing and braiding, we were quite surprised to discover after his first haircut at age three, that our son had become highly sensitive to anyone or anything touching his head.
At this time, we didn't know yet that our son had autism. We did know that he had a speech delay. He was also beginning to show some really odd behaviors. Such as behaving like our new puppy, and being fascinated with our steam iron and vacuum cleaner.
Mostly he was a happy, quiet toddler, easy to please and smiled often. Around age three he began communicating any unhappiness to us with a loud, high-pitched scream. By this time he did not talk at all. He did not point and would walk around our house clutching a plastic coat hanger.
He began closing any open doors, turning the lights on and off, and lining his toys up in a single row. Screaming loudly, he would tantrum if you dared to move any of his toys out of place.
We came to realize he was now also highly sensitive to certain noises. Low humming and high-pitched sounds made him very anxious and uncomfortable. While he was actually attracted to other loud sounds, like our garden tractor.
Years later, we learned he is hyperacusis in his right ear, and borderline in his left ear, meaning he has a hypersensitivity to certain sounds.
He was now also sensitive to sunlight and needed to wear sunglasses or at least a sun visor whenever outdoors. He began blinking his eyes rapidly before having a meltdown. Later when he learned to talk, he told us he was "making lightning."
Our son has many sensory issues. He has trouble sitting still and following directions, especially during haircut time. He would become non-compliant and resistant, covering his head with his hands, moving his head quickly from side-to-side, and would cry until the ordeal was over.
Over the years our son has been to many different barbers for a haircut. Some of them are more patient with a difficult young client than others.
Sometimes while getting a haircut he would grab your hands or even try to smack you away from him. Often times, it would take at least two of us to manage the situation.
Mostly these sessions would grow worse, leading up to a full-blown tantrum or meltdown. His barbers usually found these behaviors to be way too stressful. Eventually it became obvious that both our son and the barbers were miserable whenever we bought him in for a haircut.
My husband believing he had no choice, finally took on a new trade. Learning through trial and error how to give our son a haircut. These experiences were filled with nervous tension. They were terribly stressful and unpleasant times for all of us.
Time and experience soon taught us how to prepare our son to get through getting a haircut. Then later, learn to tolerate a haircut without having a tantrum or meltdown. Today haircuts are readily accepted by our son as part of his bi-weekly grooming routine.
Sensory Problems and Autism
In Autism Spectrum Disorders, the brain seems unable to balance the senses appropriately. It is common for a child with autism to have sensory problems. He may be hypoactive (low sensitivity) or hyper-reactive (high sensitivity) or lack the ability to combine the senses.
Autistic children often have a "fight or flight" response to sensation. This condition is called "sensory defensiveness" and may be diagnosed as a "sensory processing disorder."
A child with autism can be sensitive to many things, like the noise hair clippers make, the sensation of cutting hair, feeling loose hairs on their body, seeing hair fall on their clothing, or even the floor. Our son told us that it hurts him to get a haircut.
When children's perceptions are accurate, they can learn from what they see, feel, or hear. On the other hand, if sensory information is faulty, their experiences of the world can be confusing. Many autistic children are highly attuned or even painfully sensitive to certain sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.
Sensory integration therapy may help desensitize a child. This type of therapy can be provided by an occupational, physical or speech therapist, helping a child to better rearrange his sensory information.
We have found that desensitizing our child to be the key to a tantrum-free haircut. And wish to share our tried and true practical tips and ideas with other parents and caregivers.
1. Take each haircut session one at a time. Observe your child, take notes if necessary. You will learn more about your child each time.
2. Buy a good quality home haircutting kit. Look for clippers with blade guards to avoid cutting the hair too short. As a child my girlfriend's father would cut his sons' hair using a small bowl as a guide. He would place a bowl on top of their head and cut around it with the clippers. We called it a "bowl cut." While this type of cut is not fashionable today, it could be used to create a "fade" style cut by blending the circle line.
3. Use unscented shampoo and conditioner if your child is sensitive to smells or odors. African-American children may use hair pomade or other scalp conditioner to moisturize the hair. Before you begin it is better to wash the hair to remove any hair products build-up. Cutting clean, dry hair with clippers is much faster. The hair will cut easier. Some children do not like having their hair washed. Our son will not lean his head back all the way. So we wash his hair with sudsy shampoo on a washcloth, and rinse using clear water on a washcloth. We condition his hair the same way. Over time he is able to wash his hair on his own.
4. Schedule a haircut when your child is least likely to be sensory overloaded or feeling overwhelmed by the information he is taking in through the five senses: hearing, vision, touch, smell and taste. Try to avoid scheduling haircuts after school or when your child is ill or tired. Our son appears to be most autistic in the morning. So we do not plan to cut his hair then, preferring to do it later in the day.
5. For a child that is sensitive to the buzz sounds of the clippers or the snap of a scissor, try using soft, flexible ear plugs. Does your child like to sing? Sing a song. Play some of their favorite music.
6. Develop a routine for haircuts. Does your child need a haircut or trim every week, every other week or once a month? Try to schedule them for the same day of the week and time of day whenever possible. For example, every other Saturday morning. Be consistent.
7. Think of a few activities, toys or food your child really enjoys to use as his special reward or bonus. What does he like to do? What makes him happy?
8. Explain to your child exactly what you are planning to do during the haircut. Use short sentences or visual supports using personal photos or picture icons. Take pictures while your child is getting a haircut. Take a picture of all the items used. You may also use icons like PECS or Boardmaker.
9. Be sure your child has a cape, sheet or towel draped over him. Our son hates having any hair fall onto his face, body or clothing. He covers his face with a hand towel to keep those fine, cut hairs off his face.
10. Under supervision allow your child to handle the clippers and other items used for the haircut. At home, allow him to help you prepare for it. For example, the child gets a towel, and the comb or brush. Teach him how to clean the clippers. For example, brush off any loose hairs from the blade and oil the clippers. This can be a good motivator and it's fun learning in the natural environment.
11. Observe your child while cutting his hair. Is there anything he particularly dislikes or finds intolerable? If so, try to eliminate it or make it better.
12. Allow your child to give an old doll or teddy bear a haircut while their own hair is being cut. This may help your child learn to generalize the experience. You or the barber can also use the doll or teddy bear to demonstrate what it is you need or expect your child to do. For example, act out directions to "turn your head to the right" or "hold your head down." These are strong visual cues and may be better understood.
13. Unless your child is better able to tolerate a haircut, keep their hairstyles simple. For example, "fades" and elaborate parts and designs in the hair will take longer to cut. Try the "Caesar" style which is a low even and blended cut all around the head.
14. Focus on the task at hand. Try to cut the hair as fast as you can without rushing. For example, don't dawdle. Try not to stop cutting hair to talk to others, in person or on the phone.
15. Edge the front, sides and nape of the neck first for a shape-up then cut the hair. Should your child not tolerate a haircut before you or the barber is done, a shape-up will give him a clean, fresh haircut look, even if the hair has not been entirely cut.
16. Reassure your child during the haircut. Explain each step of the way in a slow and steady voice. Praise him. For example, "Good job keeping your head still." "All done, right after..." Let your child know that there is an end in sight. This step may be faded out gradually as your child becomes more familiar with the process.
17. Once the haircut is done, admire your child's clean-cut appearance. "You look handsome!" Show him how he looks in the mirror, if tolerated. Take before and after photos so they can see the benefits of getting a haircut. Use this opportunity to begin to teach him how to comb and brush his own hair.
18. Remember to give your child a reward or bonus that he will enjoy. Give your child a choice for their bonus. A reward or bonus will show him that although we must do unpleasant things sometimes, we also get to do things that we enjoy.
19. At home, use this opportunity to teach other daily living skills, particularly hygiene and grooming. For example, your child may learn how to undress/dress, shower or take a bath independently (run his own bath water at the right temperature, wash his body properly, determine how long to stay in the shower or tub, clean the shower/tub, put his dirty clothes away, use deodorant, choose an appropriate outfit to wear, etc.
20. Other lessons and tasks on daily living activities may be expanded in time as appropriate. For example, your child may learn to help put items away, clean and oil the clippers, sweep or vacuum cut hair off the floor, put dirty clothes and towels in the hamper or washing machine. Learn to sort laundry, load and wash his clothes, put clothes in the dryer, fold clothes, learn to iron, etc.
Remember to take long, deep breaths and try to be really patient. Don't worry, you'll do fine.
Before getting a haircut we would "brush" our child using an autism brushing protocol to help reduce any sensory issues.
Use activity schedules and visual supports for learning
Here are a few practical items and materials we use to help our loved one process sensory information better, tolerate haircuts, be more independent, and handle changes in his routines better. We also use them to make schedules and checklists for home and when he is out in the community.
W.R. Brown is wife, mother of four children, grandmother, volunteer, presenter at parent support groups, member of local autism support groups, national autism organizations, former legal assistant, service coordinator, served as Board member to non-profit organizations, autism Advisory Groups, attends seminars, workshops and conferences on autism and other related disorders, appeared on Cable 6 TV, XM Radio One, Tavis Smiley Radio, CNN Radio, WDIG, KCSN Radio. Contact via e-mail.