Autism Haircuts: Why Do They Scream and Fight Me?

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You sit across from your child staring at their long hair with split ends.  Maybe you could wait just one more day?  One more day wouldn’t hurt, but eventually that “one more day” has to be today.  You get them interested in their favorite activity:  their favorite TV show, favorite puzzle, or even candy.  Then you try hiding the scissors from them so that they don’t know it’s coming, just hoping that you can get as much done as possible.  You already know what’s going to happen before it does.  The tears.  The screaming and bargaining.  You watch them try to hide, terrified of you.  You’re both traumatized from this whole event.  You wish there was someone to take them to.  Someone who could do this better, but there’s no one trained on how to do Autism haircuts.

I know you probably already feel like a horrible parent for not being able to help your child.  You don’t want to get accused of neglect, and you also don’t want to cause your child pain.  In this blog post, I want to share my perspective as one Autistic person, and what I’ve done to help my son through this.  My hope is to give you some tips and ideas about how to make your Autism haircuts more enjoyable for you and your Autistic child.

Perspective of One Autistic Person

I remember being absolutely terrified of haircuts as a child.  My parents and the hairdresser told me that it was fine, but my Autistic brain just couldn’t understand the logic behind why cutting off pieces of myself was ok.  It was terrifying to watch things that used to be a part of me and my body just fall to the floor.  I wondered what those pieces felt like.  Were they sad?  Did they feel alone?  I was unable to articulate and verbalize my concerns and thoughts. I was always taught to be a big girl.  So I made sure to hold in all my strong emotions to show my mother that I could be the big girl she wanted me to be.

The person cutting my hair didn’t understand the depth of sensation I experienced when I said that the comb hurt and each cut tickled.  The woman cutting my hair just thought that I was an anxious child and exaggerating things.  She assured me that I was fine and that she was being very gentle.  It may have been true that she was being gentle, but I now understand that my heightened sensitivity made certain combs feel worse against my skin than others. Once I was diagnosed with Autism, I learned that my sensitivity levels are much more intense than those without Autism, so her interpretation of “gentle” was still extremely painful against my skin. As an adult, I now cut my own hair and have taught myself tricks on how to hold my  hair to avoid the tickle sensation.

I cut my own hair, because going to other people is just too traumatic.  I know how to cut so that my scalp isn’t tingling during the whole haircut.  I hold my  hair in between my fingers and cut into the hair rather than horizontally, the way barbers and hairstylists are taught in cosmetology school.  Generally, they cut horizontally, and then cut “feather” or cut into the hair to make the edges more natural.   Cutting horizontally is how I end up with the tingling sensation.  So I just skip that step and go straight to the feathering process.  I also use a soft rounded metal comb.  It’s one that came with a pet grooming set and it’s amazing.

Photo by Shalev White: Depicting her method of cutting into the hair rather than cutting horizontally.

Perspective of One Autistic Mother

Haircuts have always been difficult for my son.  I tried multiple methods of distraction while cutting it with scissors.  I tried having him play a game on my phone, watching a show, and even eating candy.  However, it just felt too dangerous for both of us.  He would shake his head rapidly, and I was so afraid of cutting either him or myself.  I couldn’t even do my method of cutting it so that it didn’t give the tingle sensation.  Even just me touching his hair was too much for him.

I knew he would need to see a haircut before he would even let me try.  So I tried having him watch me cut my own hair first.  He found that funny.  I was hoping that this would allow him to not be afraid of the whole process, and he did let me attempt it, but it just became too much for him.

I had the idea of getting him used to buzzers so that if he randomly shook his head or ran off, I didn’t have to worry about scissors cutting either one of us.  The problem is that my son didn’t like how loud they are and how much they vibrate.  I don’t like the buzzers either.  He ran away screaming from the buzzers I was holding, and I understand.  The noise the clippers make is loud, scary, and the vibration is a whole other problem.  I went online to see if there were quieter ones, and they do make a few for kids.  I bought multiple brands and even just started borrowing different ones so that I wasn’t spending money constantly.  The problem with those is that they either vibrated too much or his hair would get caught in it.

I was talking about this issue with someone else and she mentioned that pet buzzers need to be quiet and gentle so that they don’t frighten the animal.  This sounded perfect and I decided to try.  There’s still a quiet sound and a mild vibration, but it’s milder than most cell phones.  It’s also chargeable so that I don’t have to worry about a cord being in my way.  I let him hold it and turn it on and off multiple times without the pressure of cutting his hair.  I wanted him to get used to it and be ok with it before I started cutting his hair.  I let him take breaks in between when he needed it and the first few times, it took all day with breaks in between until it was done.  Now he just lets me do it while watching a show.

Photo by Shalev White: Depicts her cutting her son’s hair with the pet hair buzzers mentioned in the blog.

HOW YOU CAN HELP YOUR CHILD WITH THEIR AUTISM HAIRCUT

I only have boys.  So any advice I can give you for girls will come from how I deal with my own hair.

1. Let Them Watch First

You may need to start with a video first, and then let them watch it happen to either you or another family member.  Going straight to a family member may be too traumatic for them.  If they have a reference of a happy video, it may make this whole experience easier.  Then let them watch you get your haircut and they can see that you are ok.  However, it may not be smart to immediately try cutting their hair.  They may need some time to think about everything and come back to it later.

2. Allow For Breaks

They may need more breaks and it may take longer to complete everything.  Remember that this whole experience is overloading for them, and allowing them those breaks shows them that you care about their well-being.

3. Alternate Equipment

I’ve found that pet grooming equipment is much gentler than regular equipment.  My favorite comb is from a pet grooming set.  It is soft rounded metal and feels amazing on my skin.  The pet buzzers have been amazing for my son.  They are much less terrifying to him.  If you need to use scissors, I would recommend rounded tipped scissors and cut into the hair rather than across.  Cutting across may cause more sensory issues.

Testing Autistalline Glasses

(Disclaimer I was given an tester pair of Autistalline, Autistic Sensory Overload glasses. They are for investigational purposes only and are not available for commercial use since they are not yet FDA-Approved. I write about my experiences with the glasses and all experiences and opinions of Autistalline Glasses are my own. I am not paid to test the glasses on me or my son. I am compensated for writing blogs and producing content. All contents in the blogs I write and post on this website are actual recounts of my daily experiences as an individual diagnosed with Autism. Each experience will vary from person to person with Autism. Any content contained in this blog is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, care and treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider.)

The problem for me has always been the combs, which feel too harsh against my scalp, and the way most people cut hair, which just leaves tingles all over my head. I’ve always done my own hair for this reason. It gives me too much anxiety about others doing it wrong and hurting me. I will even use particular equipment like my soft metal comb that’s designed for pets.

When I wear the Autistalline Tester Glasses, I’ve noticed that other combs don’t hurt as much. I purposefully tested this. I grabbed the plastic combs from the Dollar Store that my husband uses and combed my hair with those. It didn’t feel as abrasive. I even tried cutting my hair horizontally and it didn’t give that tingling sensation that normally overloads me. It felt strange, but it was manageable.

Even with the glasses, I still choose my metal comb because it’s soft and comforting. However, if I’m in a situation where that’s not available, I don’t have to worry about other ones hurting me. Cutting hair is also faster now. I can do the normal horizontal cut for the length, and then cut into the hair to finish it off.
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