Wednesday, July 11, 2018

successful hair cuts and autism

We discover the world through our senses.

The nervous system must receive and process information in order to react, communicate, and keep the body healthy and safe. Much of this information comes through our sensory organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. 

Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. They experience too much or too little stimulation through these senses. Hyposensitive kids are under-sensitive, which makes them want to seek out more sensory stimulation. Hypersensitive kids are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation, and can find it overwhelming. Many autistic individuals are a mixture of both. 

This is important, because these sensory processing issues can make hair cuts traumatic for individuals with autism in ways those of us with a typical nervous system can't begin to imagine

A person with hypersensitive senses may:
  • Be unable to tolerate bright lights, loud noises, or the sound of a clippers or scissors
  • Refuse to wear clothing because it feels scratchy or irritating—even after cutting out all the tags and labels
  • Be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear
  • Feel physical pain when getting their nails or hair cut
  • Be unable to tolerate the feeling of cut hair on their body
  • Be fearful of touch 

One way we have helped make hair cuts less traumatic for my two sons with autism, is by Systematic Desensitization. Systematic Desensitization is a fancy term for a technique that can move a person from stress and avoidance to success gradually over time. This therapy shares the same elements of both cognitive psychology and applied behavior analysis (ABA). We do ours during ABA therapy. 

Systematic Desensitization is not just for individuals with autism, and can be useful for many kinds of phobias or fears (ie fear of bugs, fear of going to the Doctor). Essentially, a person is exposed to a simulation and eventually small amounts of the actual aversive condition in longer and longer doses as they are able to demonstrate calm behavior with exposure to each step. In this way, they are able to build up to the ability to tolerate the troublesome event. 

As with any therapy we do with our boys, our goal is not to eliminate autistic traits. I love how my boys view the world. My goal is to help reduce their anxiety around situations that are traumatic for them. 

It's best to individualize this program based on what causes the discomfort for the person with autism. An individualized approach and a systematic way to move forward are key to success. It's different for every person, so what works will be different. This process has evolved for our family, and for our boys. If something no longer works, we keep trying different ways. 

I used to hold him on my lap because that made him feel more secure. Here the stylist was spraying the water in his hand so he could feel it before she sprayed his head. He likes advance notice each time the bottle is sprayed. We also would give him two red (his favorite!) suckers to hold so he wouldn't try to grab the scissors.

For Greyson, current specific triggers are the sound of the scissors, and the feel of the hair hitting his skin. In some cases you can eliminate some trauma by working around these triggers. For example, now with Greyson we listen to the iPad turned up loud on a preferred YouTube video to drown out the scissor sound and we cover his body/neck/everything exposed with a towel so hair doesn't fall on him. 

The things we can not eliminate- we work on in small bits, gradually exposing the child to more in a structured environment replicating the actual situation as best as possible.

There are some universal things that can may also be used to help many children during the process like:

  • If the child has a visual schedule, put the hair cut on the schedule and remind them of the upcoming hair cut each day.

  • Have the child select a reward that will be delivered after the hair cut. Bring the reward with you and keep it visible during the cut. Remind them, "First hair cut, then (AWESOME REWARD)." Don't rely on them being satisfied with stickers or some "reward" they don't like. It's gotta be awesome!

  • If possible, go to the salon for a walk through before the actual hair cut. Call ahead to discuss.

  • Do practice hair cuts daily. Depending on the child's baseline and tolerance (remember individualized!) this may start out with the child simply wearing a cape- or just getting their hair combed for one minute.) I suggest buying a hair dressing cape, a spray bottle, and anything else you may need to replicate the actual environment.

  • If your child responds well to Social Stories, create one about their upcoming hair cut. Your child is the main character in the book. It doesn't have to be Pulitzer Prize wining- Microsoft Word and Google images will do the trick! Keep wording and outcomes positive. Remind the child about any coping techniques you may have for specific aversions, ie, "I will wrap a towel around my neck so I don't feel the hair fall on me."  End with a successful hair cut and a happy child with their awesome reward.

  • Watch videos of children getting hair cuts. If your child has a cut that requires the use of clippers, make sure you are watching videos that include that aspect of the process. 

Autism Speaks has a helpful page with tips for a successful hair cut, as well as a link for stylists that have experience working with individuals with autism. They also have a guide that includes a visual schedule for the actual hair cut!!! I LOVE VISUAL SUPPORTS! 

Here is a video from the Autism Speaks site that can be used for both kids with autism, and for hair dressers. (It says that hair cuts can be fun for all individuals. I have to say- I'm not buying that! My goal is to make hair cuts consistently tolerable. I don't ever see it being fun!)

For hair dressers: 

  • In some ways, you will treat a child with autism just like any other child. Get on the child's level but don't try and get eye contact. Greet them, introduce yourself. Ask them their name and their favorite things. Give them extra time to respond. If they can not talk, and don't use a communication device, ask the parent or caregiver- "Tell me a little bit about him/her." Even if the child does not respond, talk directly to them. 

  • Find out specific triggers that make hair cuts traumatic for the child.
  • Use clear, concise language. Keep directions simple. 

  • Don't start cutting instantly- let the child explore your tools- spray bottle, combs, clippers etc. See if you can find out what specifically has been difficult during prior hair cuts. Keep your routine consistent. 

Hair cuts have gotten so much better for my boys using these techniques, and I believe they can help you too! Any questions, comments or tips of your own, let me know! 




  1. Thanks for the great info Chrissy! I gave up on salon haircuts many years ago--way too stressful for my son, Luke and for me! I have a sweet friend who is a hairdresser that comes to our house to cut Luke's hair. He sits on the counter, I stand in front of him and we hug each other while she cuts his hair.
    Our boys keep us on our toes huh? :)

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