Haircuts for Children with Autism

Let’s admit that getting a haircut is one of all our fearful dreams. Every hair that falls on our shoulder comes with the fear that it will be bad, very short. And besides, for individuals with autism spectrum disorder who are hypersensitivity, the sound and coldness of the scissors can be even more fearful. The haircut, which is an ordinary experience for normally developed children, can be difficult for children with autism, as in many other areas. 

Haircuts are most of the time difficult for children on the spectrum, as well. So, many parents are all too familiar with the challenges of taking their child to get a haircut. There are several challenges that they have to face. It could be sensory issues. It could be noise. It could be anxiety. It could be not liking the hairdresser. And, so on… If a parent has a child with autism who has difficulty with haircuts, there are some of these strategies to be worth to try. Those strategies can make a world of difference for the child and his/her parents as well.

“There is a boy diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Shortly after he gets diagnosed, his parents learned that ordinary activities, such as haircuts, sometimes turn into problems. It was not easy for him to sit in a chair and let someone with a pair of scissors get that close to his head. So the hairdresser decided to try something new after several months of unsuccessful attempts.

The hairdresser wrote on Facebook and he said that “I’ve been trying to cut his hair for the last few months, but he is not letting me get close to his ears with scissors.” Since it was impossible to put him in a chair, the hairdresser began to lie down with him and do his job in that position. The child with autism, who can make the first smooth haircut in this way and his family, establish a warm relationship with the hairdresser.

After the haircut, the hairdresser says that “I like to make his parents happy. Friendship and trust by developing a special interest in him to show make them happy.” The hairdresser, who asked him to give a high five when his haircut came to an end, was filled with tears because the child with autism gave a friendly hug.”

Children with autism have sensory processing issues very often. So, even the simple stroke of a hairbrush would be very uncomfortable and even painful for a child who would be known as a sensory-defender. Moreover, they are very literal. It means they take words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory. So, they may fully believe that getting their hair cut will hurt them.

It is difficult to visit the salon for children with autism. They often experience a level of anxiety at those times. As one of the main symptoms of autism, their communication is mostly impaired. So, it can be very difficult to explain the concept of getting a haircut when with social stories, signs and modeled behaviors.

A trip to the salon can result in a meltdown for some children with an autism spectrum disorder. It is usually sparked by an overload of sensory input. All of us have felt sensory overload before going to a salon, but the difference between us and them is we can regulate ourselves. Children with autism cannot and it is not easy for them at all. In this case, stimming takes place. They use it until even that does not help. Giving thee child what he or she want is not helpful. And, it cannot be solved in that way. It must run its course and we do our best in order to help keep the child and others safe during one of these episodes.

Tips for Easy Haircuts

As we mentioned above, haircuts can be a challenging task for children on the spectrum as well as their families. There are several challenges they have to face. So, in order to help families in terms of haircuts, there are some useful tips to use. They need to know how to prepare their children for a haircut. First of all, a visual schedule. It is not only useful for haircuts but for haircuts, it helps the child understand the steps, what is going to come one, and other.

A hairdresser can start with a friendly hello. The greetings part is very important. He/she can physically get down to his/her level to meet and communicate before escorting him/her to the styling chair.

The hairdresser and parents should make sure him/her gets comfy. One the child get in the chair, the hairdresser will try to make him/her feel more comfortable and relax by putting his/her hands on his/her laps and his/her feet on the bar of the chair. The hairdresser will then put the cape on unless the child feels more comfortable without it. Then, the hairdresser should reassure the child by telling him/her some shooting sentences.

The process should be fun. The hairdresser should make haircut fun. At this point, the hairdresser will either play a video, play calming music or even blow bubbles to keep the child entertained.

The next step is to show, tell and snip. The hairdresser should introduce the cutting tools to the child if it is possible. Sometimes, time would be the essence and it becomes impossible. So, in some haircuts, instead of spraying the child’s hair with water, the hairdresser sprays the comb and this way provides him/her that he/she does not scare the child. Then, the haircut process can begin. All the while, the hairdresser praises the child.

As the last step, before you know it the haircut is over and the child looks great, the child is given a special treat for doing such a good job.

Other than those, parents or caregivers can call in advance. They can get advice from a hairdresser that has training in working with children on the spectrum. You can bring your child with autism at an off-peak time when the saloon is quiet. So, they can meet the hairdresser before the haircut. This will help put the child at ease before the scheduled day. When the day comes, parents or caregivers remember to bring the child’s favorite toy or snack. This will make the experience more enjoyable.

Sometimes the salon itself is actually an environmental trigger. It contains triggers such as different odors, mirrors, noise and people coming in and out. Therefore, hairdressers may be asked to come home. Cutting a child’s hair is an unconventional haircut. It is necessary to be aware of this. The appointment usually takes much longer than a normal haircut. Obtaining the desired size haircut can be completed after several different appointments. This is all about the child’s getting used to it.

Each child is different, so experiment with different solutions in an attempt to make the experience a good one. Even in the best possible scenario, when a child with autism is getting a haircut, there may be screaming and shouting. While this would not go over well, many salons are using off-hours or special days when it is acceptable to be loud. In response to the growing need, an increasing number of barbers and hairstylists are willing to do whatever it takes to cut the hair of a child with autism.

These tips are general tips. Let’s break them into more detailed parts. What should be done for preparation, what should be done in when the haircut begins and what are the tips for the final part?

What Should Be Done for Preparation? (Preparation Part)

As we all know, every child is different and besides that each child on the spectrum is unique. Caregivers try to learn what the child is sensitive to. They can keep a journal of their observations and findings, and also they can take a picture after the haircut that the child likes. So that they can show the child’s desire to the hairdresser when caregivers need it in the future.

Setting a time table is very important. Caregivers should consider what time of day the child with autism tends to be least overwhelmed and most relaxed. It would be a good idea to try haircutting at multiple times in order to help the caregivers which time is easiest. On the other hand, caregivers should avoid trying to give the child a haircut immediately after school, any activities or during unfortunate times when the child is under bad circumstances or tired.

Children with autism tend to have routines and love routines. If the child needs routine, it is best to set up when haircuts will be happening. Because this haircutting process can be traumatic or cause anxiety for some of them. So, it is best to put haircuts on the calendar at regular intervals such as every month, every other month or whenever caregivers decide. Thus, the child knows how long he/she should wait in between trims.

Before the haircut begins, it is important that the child with autism understands what it is all about. Caregivers can try to act out a scenario with a doll or pretend as it happens to them. They can start with sitting in a chair and wearing the barber cape. Using toy clipper can help them to show what the steps are during a haircut and with this way caregivers can encourage the child to participate. It is beneficial in order to begin the preparation a few days prior so that the child feels informed when it is time and gets ready as much as possible. 

 “Based on a true story, a boy was initially very scared of calming clippers. However, after watching a video, which was included a boy who wears calming clippers, repeatedly while out running errands, he began to feel much more comfortable and could not stop asking for a haircut.”

What Should Be Done When the Haircut Begins?

Obviously, this process starts with putting the child on the barber chair. Then, they should wear a barber cape. Because, children with autism spectrum disorder are very sensitive to the feeling of hair falling on their skin, which is one of the main symptoms of autism.

Tools should be chosen according to the child’s comfort level. There are some special tools and scissors that are made for especially children with special needs. If the child is interested, a hairdresser can offer to let the child examine the combs, the cape, and the scissors under the hairdresser’s supervision. However, of course, they should be careful because scissors have a sharp blade.

The hairdresser should keep the focus on the haircut. Because the child with autism may feel like he/she is in danger so it is tremendously important that keeping things under control. Also, using a safety scissor around sensitive areas like around the ears and neck is a good idea.

Since sensitive areas can be tough for children with autism, it is recommended to use the “count to 10” method. With this method, when the hairdresser starts haircutting, he/she starts counting from 1 to 10, and then take a break. This way, the child will know that the haircutting process will all be over by 10.

Sometimes the child with autism needs a direction, for example, “keep your head down” or “turn right/ turn left”. Caregivers or hairdressers may find that it helps to repeat this direction in a reassuring way, such as “thank you” or “good job”. Using phrases like “almost there” or “just this last bit” would be very beneficial. It helps that the child knows that the misery will be over at some point. It helps them to be comfortable.

What about breaks during haircuts? It is important to take a lot of breaks as much as needed. People who have a child with autism should know that completing a haircut may take even all day. Sometimes caregivers may even want to split it up over an entire weekend. It is important to be patient and accept the fact that it will take a while. During this process, caregivers can take notes on specific things the child does like and does not like for further haircuts.

As we all know, individuals with autism are very sensitive to stimuli, so it is important to avoid stimuli during the haircut process. In other respect, there is no way to mute the sound of hair being cut. For some of those, it is an unpleasant sound that they cannot handle. However, there are some ideas for how to shift the attention of the child with autism away from the haircutting process. They could be video, phone, games, putting his/her favorite movie or music, singing a song with them or using earplugs if it is necessary.

What Are the Tips for the Final Part?

Children with autism can be rewarded by something they like, such as a toy, a doll or a candy. Caregivers know they deserve it and what they want.

After completing the haircutting process, caregivers can take a picture and try to get a smile from the child if they can. When the next haircut rolls around, that photo can be proof that a haircut is not the end of the world.

What Happens When the Haircut Tips and Tricks Do Not Work?

Speed and simplicity are your friends. There is no need for fancy haircuts, just make them as comfortable as you can and get it done. Eventually, things get better. Don’t give up hope.

Some kids prefer scissors. Some kids prefer clippers, the buzzers. It depends. But generally, they do not like buzzers because they are high sensory. On the other hand, they do not like scissors as much because it takes longer and what they really do not like is the hair the feeling of a hair on their face, the tiny particles.

The main thing to remember is it is kind of sheer grit and determination. They do not like haircuts but caregivers should get them used to it. There is no magic bullet in this situation. It is just getting it done. Sometimes, you have to get help from others. So, things can be a bit better.

The neck is the most difficult part to cut. Because they scare from the sound and the touch. It causes them to lunch. They cannot hold on and sit. So, caregivers or hairdressers should be extra careful about the neck in order not to hurt them.

Preventing Problem Behaviors During Haircuts

Many children with autism have a very difficult time tolerating haircut. It is a very challenging task for them. Besides that, there are some activities that make them disturbed such as nail clipping and all kinds of medical procedures. Now, let’s dive in and mention some ways that caregivers can make haircuts more tolerable for them.

“There was a boy named Max, who was two years old. He was not yet diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In fact, Max never got the diagnosis of autism but he had major problem behaviors, such as screaming and crying throughout the day. One day, his mom insisted that she needed to take him to get a haircut. And she needed a behavior analysis to go along to see this haircut and give the analysis’s advice.

So, without making an appointment or selecting a kid-friendly hair salon, they took Max to a franchise type of haircut salon. And obviously, it did not go well. They got the newest hairdresser. She looked like a deer in headlights. Max was already crying as soon as they entered the salon. Max was just two, so his mom had him wrapped around her, screaming and flailing, and the hairdresser was not able to do a good job. It was just a bad experience all around.”

When there are problem behaviors, it is really a no-win situation. If a child with autism is having severe problem behaviors, you are going to want to consult with a professional to help you individualize the plan, in this case, it is a haircut plan.

First, write down the steps of the haircut. If you can progress alone as a caregiver, and to do this, you can start by writing all the steps of a haircut. So, even from leaving the house could be added to the steps to follow. Other steps would be entering the salon, sitting in the chair, tolerating the cape or smock going over the child, the water spray, etc. This water spraying is a particularly hard step for some of those with autism.

So, let’s say you write to the steps. Then, the most challenging steps should be identified and explained to the child very well. It would be a great idea if you practice thee steps at home. Because in the home environment there is at least someone who knows how to approach the child and behavioral strategies. Step by step, you can work to practice those harder areas.

One of the things that can be work for one of the children with autism is creating a book, where the parents could say, “You enter. The hairdresser going to be there. You are going to sit in the chair. You are going to get the cape on.” and the pictures of either that child going through the procedure or a familiar one.

Then when it is time to transfer those skills to the regular salon. Caregivers should be very sensitive about choosing the right one. It should be a very child-friendly and open-minded hairdresser. Or even better if it is trained about sensory issues.

At the end of haircutting, after all these processes, you need to have a strong reinforcer to embrace your child. So, it could be basic candy, special food or going to the park. You need to pair those activities with having a haircut.

Just in case, in order to prevent dangerous situations, consultation from BCBA would be a great idea. In summary, writing down the steps of haircut, pointing out the most challenging one for the child, practicing all the steps at home especially with someone who know the child very well are steps you need to follow before everything. And you need to choose a child-friendly place and seasoned barber. Then it is time to make an appointment.

Caregivers do not want to make an appointment during busy times, like a Saturday morning is not the time caregivers of a child with autism want to take a child in that has problems with haircuts. There is too much going on in those times. So, you want to make an appointment with a seasoned barber. And sometimes, children even need to go visit the barber on a daily or weekly basis, and not even get their hair cut. Just go in and practice the first three steps, go home and access reinforcement to work your way up.

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