Below is an excerpt from my latest work, Crossing the Hurdles of Haircuts, which is available both as a free downloadable white paper, and as a printed, bound book.
This excerpt explains in detail the different sensory experiences I have/had when getting my hair cut. I think it explains a whole lot about why things were so difficult for me…
As you read this, you may wonder at all the drama involved in something as simple as getting your hair trimmed. You may also be interested to know why some of us cannot abide having our hair cut — and sometimes have a full-on meltdown as a result. I can assure you, there are very good reasons for all of this. Here’s my experience and the explanation behind it.
I couldn’t stand getting my hair cut when I was a kid because:
The sound of my hair being cut was deafening. It may sound unlikely, but my hearing has always been so sensitive, I hear even the finest vibrations far more acutely than most people, so the physical experience of getting my hair cut was audibly traumatic. I could hear the scissors blades cutting through my hair in loud rasping sounds.
To give you an idea of what it’s like, put your fingers in your ears, plug them in tight, and then clear your throat with a raspy, non-vocal rush of air through your constricted throat — like you’re clearing sinus drainage from just behind your tongue at the back of your mouth. That’s roughly what it was like for me, every time a clump of hair was snipped. The sound was sharp — sharp!!! And loud. It was a loud, sharp, raspy, thundering crunch that reverberated through my head.
Now, not all loud crunching sounds were unpleasant to me, when I was little. In fact, some of them could be quite soothing. The little bits of celery my mother put in the tuna salad sandwiches she packed for me for lunch helped me feel centered in the school cafeteria. There were literally hundreds of kids in that cafeteria at one time — I went to an “early childhood center” that housed thousands of kids from K4 through second grade for all-day school (even in kindergarten), and the vast, cavernous cafeteria was always teeming with what seemed like wild, unbridled activity to me. In the midst of what felt like total chaos and traumatic sensory overload to my already taxed system (I was usually tired, as I was bused an hour each way, through some pretty rough parts of the little city where we lived, in a school bus filled with rambunctious, screaming, fighting, jumping, jostling kids. I also attended all-day school from kindergarten, on.), the crunching of celery bits in my ears blocked out all the other sounds and gave me something immediate to focus on. The coarse texture and sound of celery thundering in my ears literally helped me keep my sanity in the midst of that mid-day sensory onslaught.
Unfortunately, though, the “crunch” of getting my hair cut was not like that of chewing celery. It was not a sound that kept me sane in the midst of chaos. Quite the contrary — it added to my sense of overwhelm. The worst thing was, I didn’t understand why it did. I felt terribly self-conscious at the same time that I was auditorily uncomfortable.
The sound of the scissor blades that were cutting my hair also put me on edge. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have sensory and/or audible pitch issues, but the sound of scissors blades rubbing together was very disorienting — and disconcerting. It’s not that the sound was unpleasant — far from it. There was actually something soothing about the sound — soft and quiet and steady.
But the pitch range of the blades sliding across each other was one that was hard for me to physically locate. I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from, if it was close or far. And that frightened me. The scissors were razor sharp, after all, and I was dreadfully afraid that I might move in the wrong direction or bump into them, and be cut. Because the sound of the scissors blades was so “feathering” and high-pitched, and because the scissors moved around a lot while I was having my hair cut, I was constantly on edge, trying to “track” the location of those sharp (and deadly — or so it felt) cutting blades.
Try as I might to ignore the sound of the hair-cutting, when I was a kid, it was audibly troubling for me. What’s more, I couldn’t get away from it. I couldn’t stop it. I was stuck in place, while that awful sound was just grinding into my ears. It might seem a bit extreme, but as a kid, that’s how I auditorily experienced having my hair cut. I’m just glad no one used a clipper on my hair. The sound of small motors was even more difficult for me to handle, than the sound of scissors blades. It might have driven me over the edge!
The physical sensation of getting my hair cut was disturbing. A lot of Aspie folks talk about how light touch is very uncomfortable, while firm touch is tolerable, and the touch involved in hair-cutting is usually quite light — which makes it hard for someone like me to take. The sensation of my hair being lifted away from my head and then cut off was so distracting for me, it was physically disorienting. On the one hand, feeling the hair lifted away from my head felt good. It actually felt soothing to have the weight lifted from my scalp, which has always been very sensitive. I could actually feel the movement of each hair.* In fact, my hair helped me sense the world around me, much like a cat’s whiskers help it to feel its way through the dark. And feeling the weight of my hair helped me to keep my balance (I say more about that later on). The subtle sensation of shifting hair helped me to orient myself physically in my immediate surroundings, which was so important for me — and is for many other Aspie kids and adults.
So, when the hair was snipped from my head, and I lost contact with the immediate space around me, it was hard to adjust. I couldn’t feel my surroundings in quite the same way any more. I didn’t have my same hair weight and sensation to help me orient. When the hair was cut off, I lost that type of contact, and I felt like I’d lost my direct connection with the physical world around me. This was — and still is — physically distressing for my very fine sensitivities. I tried to not let it bother me when I was younger, but it was hard. It still is.
Another problem I had was with the physical contact. I could never tell exactly where the person cutting my hair was going to touch me next, what part of my head would be pushed this way or that, forward or back or to the side, or what hair would be lifted and snipped. I couldn’t have my eyes open (or I might get snipples in them), so I was constantly braced for contact, which stressed me even more. The hairdresser sensed it and this made her very uncomfortable. She ended up walking on eggshells, not sure how to adjust me properly, so she could get a good cut. This problem persisted with hairdressers well into my adulthood.
My mom had less of a ginger approach. She was my mom, after all, and she didn’t have to be quite as dainty with me, with concerns about upsetting customers or their parents. Whenever my mother cut my hair, she would move me around or pull me back into the chair or touch me on the arm or shoulder or head, and I experienced most of that contact as pain. A significant number of folks on the Autistic Spectrum have this condition of experiencing simple touch as pain, and I’ve got that, too. Even today, with 43 years of life experience behind me, some days (especially when I’m tired or my system is overtaxed) I’m as sensitive as ever; the simplest of contacts feels like being slammed with a hot poker.
When I was was a kid and I was stressed or ultra-sensitive (usually whenever I was getting my hair cut), even a light touch felt like a blow. Now, for the record, my mother did not intentionally hit me or deliberately physically abuse me when she cut my hair. But the experience was physically very painful for me. It really hurt to be touched, when I was in a “bad space”, so being moved and positioned was like being hit over and over again — from all directions and without warning. knew that I needed to sit still and behave. But sometimes I literally could not. I was just beside myself with anxiety and actual physical pain, and I squirmed and fidgeted till she was beside herself with frustration — which didn’t make her any more gentle.
I didn’t have much time to focus on the pain, though, because the feel of the little pieces of hair on my face tickling me drove me nuts! They got in my nose, in my mouth, in my eyes. That really frightened me — they were fine and prickly and felt sharp to me. But I couldn’t brush them off — I kept trying to, but they were stuck to me. Plus, I kept getting in the way of whoever was cutting my hair, which irritated and frustrated them and prolonged the agony for everyone involved — me, the hairdresser and/or my mother. To this day, I cannot stand the feel of those little pieces of cut hair on my face and neck. And when the clippings get under my collar and into my clothing and rub me, it distracts me from whatever I’m doing and puts me on edge because I can’t get away from it. Even when I shower after a haircut, I sometimes can’t get it all off.
The feel of wet hair and skin agitated me. It always has. Ever since I was a very young girl, having wet skin — especially my face — has made me uncomfortable and agitated. The feel of wetness “hijacks” my senses and I find myself expending a lot of extra energy, sorting through all the sensory experiences around me, through the “sensory haze” that wet skin produces. To this day, I have a very hard time tolerating the feel of water on my face. Even when I go swimming, which I love to do, I need to dry off my face as soon as I get out of the water.
I’ve always had sensitivity issues around water. It makes me uncomfortable and nervous to have damp skin. In fact, it’s harder for me to have damp skin, than wet. There’s something about having a thin film of water that’s just barely moist that’s distracting for me and puts me on edge. And having damp clothing, especially cuffs and collars, is distressing for me, as well. It just chafes and irritates me to no end, and I cannot escape it.
When I was little and my mother cut my hair at home, sensitivity to dampness wasn’t much of an issue for me. She didn’t wet my hair when she cut it, but trimmed it when it was completely dry. But when I eventually went back to salons, I found that having my hair shampooed — or even just wetted down from a spray bottle — agitated me. Now, having my hair washed by another person was very pleasurable for me. The problems started if the shampoo girl got water on my face or was clumsy with the spray hose.
And my discomfort only got worse when the shampoo was over, and I was dispatched to the chair with a towel around my head. The feel of water running down my neck made me itch and squirm, and the sensation of a damp collar was very distracting. So getting a shampoo at the hair salon and then sitting still in a chair while the water dripped down my neck onto my collar bothered me intensely. It was bad enough that the little snipples of hair were stuck all over me, but damp skin and clothing aggravated me even more.
I still have issues with having my hair wetted down with a spray bottle. The sudden blast of droplets of water takes me by surprise, and the feel of damp skin at the back of my neck puts me on edge. I do pity the barber I go to now — he probably has no idea why I jump and get tense when he wets down my hair, and I think he’s getting a complex, thinking he’s done something wrong. But we both survive each haircut I get. Maybe I’ll explain this all to him, someday. He’d probably appreciate it.
I constantly felt like I was going to lose my balance. Sitting absolutely still in the chair was hard for me. The longer I was in the chair and the longer the haircut lasted, the harder it got. I felt like I was going to fall over, and I was afraid I’d be cut by the scissors. I was intent on holding still, but I was so distracted by the feel of my hair being cut and falling on my face and neck and the sound of the scissors cutting my hair and the sensation of my hair being cut away from my head, that I usually felt nauseous. I literally felt sick, whenever I got my hair cut. When I’m off balance, to this day, I have to hold my head a certain way in order to feel right again — but moving my head this way and that was definitely not what the person cutting my hair wanted me to do. I remember many an exclamation of frustration and consternation, when I would move at just the wrong time, and the hairdresser would either cut my hair wrong, or lose her grip on the hair she held between her fingers.
Nobody seemed to understand what I was going through. Indeed, if you don’t have balance and/or sensory issues, it’s probably next to impossible to grasp the impact that such instability has on your head, your attention, your stomach. Just imagine what it would be like to ride a tilt-a-whirl for three hours, then get off and have someone tell you that you have to sit up straight and hold absolutely still for half an hour, or you’ll be cut with sharp scissors and/or end up looking really awful. That’s what it was like for me. But whenever I tried to adjust my head to regain my balance, I’d get out of position, and whoever was cutting my hair would get very upset with me. I couldn’t help it — I was just trying to stay upright. And not throw up.
All the talking in hair salons made me crazy. For some reason, everyone wanted me to talk to them when I was getting my hair cut, which made me deeply uncomfortable and upset. I wasn’t much good at small talk conversation to begin with (I still have difficulties, though I’m getting better with practice), but adding an unfamiliar hairdresser’s shop to the mix was even worse. There were always lots of strangers who wanted to talk to me, or who were talking loudly in the background (over the sound of the hairdryers and other equipment). I couldn’t interact very well with anyone — the hairdresser(s) were always so verbal and moved quickly from one topic to another, and I had a hard time keeping up with what they were saying. I’ve always been a very visual thinker, and I process information in conversations by using visual images rather than words to understand concepts. That means I have to see what people are talking about in order to understand — and respond. But so much of what was discussed at the hairdresser’s was unfamiliar to me, I didn’t have “visuals” of the things these women were discussing — acquaintances I’d never met and interpersonal scenarios I wasn’t familiar with and “girl’ things that always baffled me, to begin with. I didn’t understand what the women around me were saying when they talked about people I didn’t know and places I’d never seen, so I just got left behind. I was trying to process/calm all the sensory input and keep my balance, after all.
And because I couldn’t talk to them, the women at the hairdresser’s thought I was being difficult and stubborn and “stuck up,” and they were uncomfortable with me, which agitated me even more. They became increasingly chatty (nervous chatter), and I had to work harder to understand what they were saying, which just made my self-consciousness worse.
The smells of the hair styling products drove me to distraction. The smells were all too strong! There were too many different scents, from the smell of hair styling gel… to hairspray… to shampoo… to conditioners… to permanent wave solution… to perfumes the women wore… even the scent of hair singed by the curling irons… The sum total was an overwhelming olfactory assault. The hair salon smelled of metallic chemicals and sickly-sweet plastic gunk. The women smelled of body odor and deodorant and nail polish and nail polish remover and mascara and blush and lipstick. And it all made me feel ill.
The worst part was, I was supposed to like all those smells — everyone else in the salon seemed to enjoy them, and they encouraged me to smell the perfumes and shampoos along with them, which made my head whirl. I developed such a complex over it all. What was wrong with me? I wondered. I was having such a hard time sorting out all the sensations — the feel of the hair being cut and falling on me, the sounds of everyone talking, the presence of many strangers I didn’t know (and who I was afraid I’d act stupid in front of), the sound of the scissors on my hair, the need to keep balanced, so I wouldn’t get cut… Having to smell hair products on top of it, added olfactory insult to sensory injury.
The salon was always too bright. Of course, people who cut hair have to have enough light to see what they’re doing, but for me, it was too much light. Fluorescent too — very glaring! I can get sensorily overwhelmed even more quickly, if bright light is combined with loud sounds and strong smells, so the hairdresser salon was not a friendly place for me. It was just so overwhelming. There was no escaping it… Bright lights overhead and the sudden flash of scissors reflecting colors and bright flashes…
I think my mother realized that the lights were too much for me, as I recall her cutting my hair in near darkness, at times. She would draw the blinds around the dining room and sit me down and work in shadows, snipping as quickly as she could, while I held still for as long as I could. She may have drawn the blinds because she wanted to block out any distractions from the street outside (I was very easily distracted), but the darkness calmed me, as well as not having a clear view to any outdoor activity within my immediate range of vision.
The salon was always too loud. As I said above, all the talking made me crazy, but the sound of the machinery was even worse. I had a hard time with appliance motor sounds when I was a kid; I couldn’t tolerate the vacuum cleaner or my mother’s blender for the longest time, and my dad’s circular saw sent me over the edge. But in a hair salon, it was the worst of all worlds. There was the sudden turning on and off of hair dryers without warning, the roar of the large over-the-head dryers that howled and growled for an indefinite amount of time.
Besides the the machines, there were plenty of other sounds to process: the sudden hisssss of hairspray shooting out of the can (the cloud of intense odor didn’t help either)… the soft sweeping of the broom that collected fallen hair… the sharp hisssss of water rushing from the ends of shampoo sprayers, cascading over heads, and splashing into the shampoo sinks… the crack of gum chewed by hairstylists… the rustling of turning pages in magazines read by women whose heads were covered by plastic and/or towels and/or hair dryers… and the sudden yelling back and forth between women who had to make themselves heard over the din of the salon.
And it wasn’t just the noise that bothered me, but also how the noise was managed. Unexpected, arbitrary lengths of time to run machines was an issue, I specifically remember. I recall asking my hairdresser if she couldn’t just turn the large dryers on and off on a schedule, and she laughed and told me she never knew how long she’d need them on. It could be a few minutes, it could be an hour. I never knew when someone was going to turn on a hair dryer or some other machine, and the pitch of the hairdryers was so loud and shrill, it pierced my ears. I get tense just thinking about it now.
And that, dear reader, is a relatively brief overview of the sensory challenges this Aspie kid had with getting my hair cut. When I think back, I almost wish I’d given up haircuts for all time. But as I discuss a little later, that wasn’t an option for me.