This post comes from a reply I made to a post over at (now defunct) Aspergers World. It turned out to be a lot longer than I originally intended to write, but I think it could help shed light on the dreaded issue of Aspie kids getting haircuts.
I’m a 43-year-old Aspie woman whose mother gave up taking me to the hairdresser when I was pretty young — probably around age 4 or 5, because I had so much trouble with it. She started cutting my hair at home, until she did a really awful job on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, and since my dad was the pastor of the church, we couldn’t show up at church looking like bedraggled ragamuffins! I squirmed so much when she was trying to cut my hair, that she couldn’t cut straight, if she’d tried! So, we were marched off to the home of a hairdresser who went to our church, an hour before we were supposed to be there. Mission accomplished — my family’s honor was preserved!
I actually stopped getting my haircut when I was 7, and I didn’t go back till I was 12 — I had pigtails, which simplified everything, and I refused to change to something else. Eventually, I went back to the hairdresser when I needed to have more of a hairstyle. Somehow, being 13 and still having the same pigtails as when you were 7 is a little embarrassing, so I bit the bullet and went back, but it was VERY difficult to do! I just couldn’t stand it!!!
Dear reader, 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. Here’s my experience and the explanation behind it.
I couldn’t stand getting my haircut when I was a kid because:
- The sound of the scissors cutting my hair was deafening. It may sound odd, but my hearing has always been so sensitive, I hear even the finest vibrations about 1000% more 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, imagine what it sounds like when you’re standing beside a chainsaw without earplugs on. Very raspy and sharp — sharp!!! And 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 sound extreme, but as a kid, that’s how I experienced the sound of having my hair cut. I don’t know what I would have done, if someone had used a clipper on my hair. It might have driven me over the edge!
- The sensation of getting my hair cut also made me crazy. A lot of Aspie folks talk about how light touch is very uncomfortable, while firm touch is tolerable. The sensation of my hair being lifted away from my head and then cut off was so distracting and disorienting for me, it was physically uncomfortable. And the feel of the little pieces of hair on my face tickling me drove me insane!!! I couldn’t brush them off — I kept trying to, but I kept getting in the way of the hairdresser, which prolonged the agony of doing the job. To this day, I cannot stand the feel of those little pieces of hair on my face and neck. And when the hair gets under my collar and into my clothing and rubs me… It really freaks me out, because it distracts me from whatever I’m doing, and I can’t get away from it.
- I constantly felt like I was going to lose my balance. Sitting absolutely still in the chair was really very hard for me. I always felt like I was going to fall over, and I was afraid that I’d be cut by the scissors. I was so intent on holding still, and 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, that I felt really nauseous. I literally felt sick, whenever I got my haircut. When I’m off balance, I sometimes have to hold my head a certain way in order to feel right again — imagine what it’s like riding a tilt-a-whirl for three hours, then getting off and having someone tell you that you have to sit up straight and hold absolutely still for your haircut. That’s what it was like for me. But whenever I tried to turn my head to right 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.
- The constant talking made me crazy. For some reason, everyone wanted me to talk to them when I was getting my hair cut, which made me so uncomfortable and upset, because I wasn’t much for small talk conversation to begin with, and then adding the 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 with everyone – the hairdresser(s) were always so chatty, and I had a very hard time keeping up with what they were saying — I was trying to keep my balance, after all. And because I couldn’t talk to them, they thought I was being difficult and stubborn and they were uncomfortable with me, which just made my self-consciousness worse.
- The smells of the hair styling products made me crazy, too. They were too strong!!! And they made me feel sick. 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 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 was just too much!
- 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 overwhelmed really easily, 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.
- 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 — and in a hair salon, it was the worst of all worlds! 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. OMG, I get tense just thinking about it now, and today is a relaxing Sunday morning!
Now, being a girl, I wasn’t allowed to act out, (or else!) so I can’t remember having any meltdowns while getting my hair cut around others. But I do remember it being so hard for me, and afterwards I was really reeling from the experience, and I acted out at home. Nobody around me understood what I was going through — all they knew was that I looked nice, and that’s what mattered. But for me, it was so hard!
I still don’t get my hair cut as often as I probably should — and I go to a small barber shop in off hours, so I don’t have to interact with a lot of people, and there aren’t a lot of hair products around. A regular women’s salon is too overpowering, smell-wise, and in just about every other way.
If your child is having trouble with haircuts, you may want to pay close attention to the sensory environment in which you cut their hair. Is it loud? Is it bright? Are there lots of smells? Are there sudden sounds? Is he wearing clothing that’s comfortable for them? Are they well-supported where you have them sit? If they’re anything like me, having a quiet, evenly lighted (not fluorescent — those bulbs make me crazy!), non-smelly (as in, no plug-in “air fresheners” or other perfumes) environment, where there aren’t a lot of people, and they talk quietly and calmly and don’t demand constant interaction… that’s the ideal place to have a haircut.
Haircuts are still hard for me, and they’re things I need to “tough out” on a regular basis. But I find that if my senses are directed somewhere other than the haircut, I can actually do it. I still get a little freaked out by the whole experience, so I concentrate deliberately on my breathing. And I have to consciously relax. Sometimes I can’t even feel my arms and legs, I get so tense. OMG — just thinking about it, puts me on edge.
Sometimes, when I’m in the barber chair (and my haircuts usually take only 15 minutes or so), I forget to breathe! I’m so keyed up and freaked out by all the sensory input… it’s an effort, just trying to interact normally and not withdraw and act autistic and make everyone in the place really nervous.
So, I concentrate really hard on my breathing… I remember to relax…. I hold onto my eyeglasses under the sheet… and I keep my eyes closed, while the hair falls… and when I can open them (which makes it easier to keep my balance), I focus on the glass cylinder with the blue sanitizing solution on the counter — the one that has all the long thin combs in it, and I count the combs and try to imagine what ingredients are in the solution… all the while trying to maintain polite conversation and act like a normal person.
But enough about me. I hope this gives you a sense of what we Aspies go through with haircuts. And I hope it gives you some more ideas about how you can help your own Apsie kid have more successful haircuts. It might sound pretty bad, the way I describe the haircut experience — but I’ve had years of practice, and it’s just how it is with me, so it’s actually not the horror show it might sound like. We all have our things we need to get through… our challenges, our shortcomings. Just ’cause mine are more extreme than others’ doesn’t mean they’re necessarily worse — just different. And I have my coping skills. A whole lot of them, in fact.
Other ideas from Aspie-Land:
How ’bout if you have your child watch a video while you cut their hair? Something to occupy their senses, so they’re not overwhelmed while you’re cutting his hair. If your kid is utterly fixated on Thomas the Tank Engine, they might not even notice the haircut while you’re giving it to them, if they’re watching a video of Thomas.
Or give them something to hold… something that has a sensation that he likes. When I was a kid, satiny fabric soothed me like nothing else, so being able to rub something satin chilled me right out. I couldn’t fall asleep, if I didn’t have my blanket with the satin edge on it. Nowadays, when I need to just bite the bullet and get through a tough situation, I’ll hold a piece of velcro (the sharp side) firmly between my fingers to focus my attention and get my mind off everything else around me. Sometimes, I just need to tough it out, and velcro or a rough piece of napkin or fabric to rub between my fingers, is very helpful. And it saves everyone around me from being vexed by my issues.
Maybe something to hold AND a video to watch… ?
I think it’s also brilliant to give kids fair warning about the haircut and let them prepare for it mentally and emotionally. We Aspies tend to do better, if we have advance warning. Something as simple as a hug can be very uncomfortable, even painful, for us, if we don’t have a chance to prepare for it. But if we know we’re about to get a hug from someone, we can sometimes reciprocate without looking/feeling uncomfortable to others.
Same thing with unpleasant experiences. My nephew — who is about as textbook Aspie as they come — refused to take medicine to bring down a fever… until, that is, we explained to him what was going to happen, what the medicine was for, and we did a few “trial runs” of taking the medicine, using some juice in a teaspoon for practice. When the time came for him to take the medicine, he didn’t like it, but he did take it, and he started to get better. We praised him intensely after it, which just made his day. He’s such a perfectionist, that hearing praise for even the smallest thing really brightened him up. There were no more issues around him taking his medicine, which was a very good thing.
Speaking of trial runs — if I were getting haircuts at home, and my mom told me she got new clippers, I’d get a little nervous. New things make us nervous. Other people think, “New clippers! How cool!!!” But we think “Oh, no — what’s going to happen?! Will they be loud? Will they be sharp? Will they be shaped the same way? Will they be easier or harder to handle? Is Mom going to get upset with me again for reasons I don’t understand? Am I going to do this wrong again?” My own mom used to get so mad at me… and my dad would yell. But I could NEVER figure out what I’d done wrong. I had no idea… and I couldn’t stop myself. All I knew was, I’d messed up again, and my parents were really upset with me. So, nobody was very happy about things.
When it comes to new experiences, as I’m sure you know, we Aspies tend to get anxious, and some of us really catastrophize, which makes us even more upset. Different sounds and different experiences than we’re used to can be anxiety-producing, even if the differences are positive. I would want to be shown the clippers, allowed to hold them and turn them on and off (with supervision, of course!) and made familiar with the sound and the feel of them — in a very closely moderated situation, where I had some kind of control over the experience. Then actually doing the clipping is less of an issue, because the unknowns are fewer. Preparation on all levels helps more than I can say. And there’s something about physically going through motions ahead of time that can be very calming, when the time comes to “just do it”.