My Checklist for a Successful Haircut
- Phone with lots of fun apps
- iPad, also with lots of games
- Super hero capes (he won't wear the hair dresser capes, hence the super hero capes. which are looser around the neck and also feel cool)
- Lots of choices of clothes: Long sleeve shirts and long pants (multiple sets to change out as hair gets on them) and Buzz lightyear costume (because may as well try to make this feel cool)
- Visual schedule (with a positive thing, going out for ice cream, immediately after the trim)
- Candy (I use candy as reinforcers. My candy of choice is mini M&Ms to try to reduce the quantity of sugar getting into him.) [Update: Later on we switched to Legos from one of the small sets. Every three snips he got a Lego. It got to the point he was requesting snips! You just have to find what works for them...]
- Sensory brush (for before the appointment)
And the most important thing? A hairdresser trained in working with autistic people. We have an autism group semi-locally and I called to ask them who they recommend (which I highly recommend parents do as well!). Turns out they train businesses to be autism friendly and they recommended this one. It also turns out that this particular hairdresser didn't need all that much training - her son is autistic. This will be our first haircut with her, but I'm sure she'll be great.
[Update: She wasn't great, actually. She insisted on trying to use the buzzers instead of the scissors, even though the child was terrified of buzzers. I ended up advocating for him and as soon as we switched to scissors, it was like magic - he did MUCH better.]
Now, some of you may be wondering, why is having a haircut such a big deal? There are three major aspects to this answer:
1. Sensory issues
This is a really big factor. Hair salons are often bright, you have loud clippers/scissors on your head/next to your ears (I'm bringing ear plugs to help with this, if he'll wear them), and, worst of all, some stray hair will inevitably fall on your skin. For those of us without sensory issues, this hair is already annoying and bothersome. For someone WITH sensory issues (which autistic people do have) this is likely to be magnified, to the point of a significant amount of pain.
Either different sensory issues (I think it's that it's too tight around his neck) or simply past bad experiences have led the child I care for to refuse to wear a hair dresser's cape. That means in order to keep the hair from falling on his skin (which hurts), we've had to get creative - hence, the super hero costumes.
2. Bad experiences
Even the hairdresser herself said before she knew her son was autistic, she didn't know how to help him with haircuts. Before a child is diagnosed, it can seem like they're just having a temper tantrum or 'acting out'. And even if you know those aren't the case, without the guidance of a diagnosis it can be hard to know what to do to make haircuts less traumatic.
This can result in bad experiences for the child and lead them to associate hair cuts with bad memories. Parents, don't feel bad - before a diagnosis, you really can't know why children are reacting this way, and if you don't know, you can't know how to help.
To help with the previous bad experiences, at a previous hairdresser's brilliant suggestion, we've rebranded hair cuts. They are no longer called hair cuts around him, they're called trims. This actually works because the experience that we're doing now is like night and day different from what happened before he was diagnosed.
Now we play by his rules on his schedule, to whatever extent we can, and offer loads of treats and games to help smooth the experience. And when I told him we were going to be doing this tomorrow, he made sure to tell me that it was NOT allowed to be a hair cut, it had to be a trim. So the rebranding has definitely worked.
Change can be a difficult and scary thing to deal with for people on the autism spectrum, and hair cuts bring change. They bring change in how your hair looks, and they can also bring changes to established routines. To help minimize the impact of the latter, we're using a visual schedule (which we started reviewing together this past night).
We're also making sure that this is coming on a day relatively free of change earlier in the day. Last time I made a mistake in assuming since a change earlier in the day had been dealt with well, we were still fine to deal with the trim. I was wrong. Dealing with change and sensory problems and other issues isn't just something that gets taken bit by bit. It's a cumulative effect. So though he'd done well with the change earlier in the day, that left him with less energy left over for coping for our big change in the afternoon.
So that should hopefully help explain the reason that haircuts can be so difficult, and what we're doing to help minimize these issues. Oh, you guys, I am so nervous for him (as I always am with these haircuts - I know how rough they are on him). I really, really hope it goes well and we can continue down our road to successful, non-traumatic hair cuts. *crosses fingers* Wish us luck!
Update: We went for a 'dress rehearsal' and determined that another thing that should have been on this list is, given that he's scared of a hairdresser's, having the haircut take place in the hairdresser's house instead of a salon.
We learned from experience. And now, after a great deal of trial and error, he actually REQUESTS trims, because he knows that afterwards he'll get to go see a movie! Persistence, listening to his self-advocacy (even if it wasn't in words), and following the keys to a successful haircut outlined above really did the trick!