Child with autism crying while getting haircut

The Haircut: 5 Tips all Autism Parents Should Know

Annie Tanasugarn, PhDc, BCBA CEO/AUTHOR, The Autism Analyst
"Autism Awareness simply means to acknowledge that Autism exists; Acceptance is to acknowledge its value."

It’s no surprise to most Autism parents that children on the spectrum often have a lot of difficulty getting their hair cut. For summertime, this may not present much of a problem for parents, since many families are on a more relaxed schedule (see my article in June’s Autism Parenting Magazine for fun summer schedule ideas). However, once school starts (and it’ll be here in the blink of an eye!) many parents want to lop a couple of inches off their kid’s head to prepare for those upcoming fall school pictures.

 

“Having a structured plan which includes regular trips to the hair salon and realistic expectations are important for hygiene goals”  ~The Autism Analyst

haircut with autism

Why are haircuts so tough?

I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times over the years, and wish I could offer a single response that works for everyone. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Haircuts are not on the top of the list for most kids (my own kids included) and they can be even more frustrating for children with special needs. One theory regarding haircuts for kids with Autism suggests that these children integrate and process sensory stimulation differently than others, which may increase their sensitivity to pain and noise. For any parent who’s seen their child drop to the floor in a full-blown meltdown when the buzzing shears snip the first piece of hair, knows this struggle all too well.

 

Does this sound familiar?

I recall introducing haircut goals with a client many years ago. In the early days of our haircut outings, mom and I would both prepare for the inevitable: my client would run away from us throughout the salon, tip over the display items, refuse to wear the salon apron, refuse to sit in the chair or on mom’s lap, tried to bite the hair stylist and screamed at the top of his lungs while flailing and falling to the floor. Yikes. However, fast-forward several months, and voila…a totally different (and pleasant) experience at the hair salon. So, how did we do it?

5 Tips for Effective Haircut Goals

Have a Baseline

The example above was our baseline behavior which basically means that my client initially had those reactions to haircuts for the first few times. This is OK and actually to be expected when introducing any skill or hygiene program that is new. Having a baseline behavior (or behaviors, as in the example above) gives both mom and the program staff information for working on new skills and reducing unwanted behaviors.

Play Hair Salon at Home

Before even going to the actual salon, my client began his program at home where we played the “Hair Salon” game during his ABA sessions and as part of playtime with mom and dad. This helped desensitize him to actual items found in a hair salon such as clippers, buzzers, combs, aprons and water mist.

Suggestion: Try purchasing an inexpensive salon apron from a beauty supply store and use it with a “Hair Salon” game you create at your house. Start out with plastic scissors (kid’s Play-Doh scissors work great) and “pretend” to cut hair. Let the child spritz and “cut” your hair first, or have them watch you “cut” your own hair. Find some wild styles in magazines, or use lots of clips, scrunchies, etc., to create kid-friendly and fun hairstyles. The more fun it is, the less anxiety they may experience. Plus, who doesn’t like playing hair salon with the kids?!

 

child with autism receives haircut

 

Find a Good Hair Salon & Stylist

As communities become more aware of kids with Autism and special needs, many hair salons have started specializing in working with this population. We have several kid-themed hair salons in my neighborhood that offer kids a cool experience of sitting in a race car, watching DVDs or playing with Floam or slime while getting their hair cut. Call around and see what your local salons specialize in within your community and then speak to a stylist who specializes in working with kids with special needs.

Have a Plan

Having a plan is very important to your child’s overall progress with haircuts. Goals should be realistic to your child’s developmental needs and be created to include both home and community outings. You know what is best for your child, so be as creative as necessary when introducing haircuts, and work with your behavior team to structure goals that are both fun and functional. Your haircut behavior plan may include the following:

  • Going on weekly outings to the salon for desensitization
  • “Hair Salon” game at home in ABA sessions and/or with mom and dad
  • A checklist including (favorite snacks, favorite DVDs, stuffed animal, blanket, fidgets, and calming items) for the hair salon
  • Brushing and/or washing child’s hair prior to going to the salon to remove any tangles
  • Increasing daily brushing/styling of hair to help desensitize child

Have Patience

Remember that no two kiddos are the same, and that success comes in all shapes and sizes. Every positive step is a success and should be rewarded! Kids are kids, and chances are they are not going to comply with an outing to a hair salon each and every time. This is ok! Include a token/reward system for every good thing your child does, even with the tiniest of improvements. Over time and with consistency, you will begin seeing positive changes where haircuts are no longer seen as a four-letter word by parents!

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