Crossing the Hurdles of Haircuts – Introduction

While over at at Aspergers World ( I posted some details on what it’s like for a highly sensitive Aspie to have their hair cut. The post turned out to be a lot longer than I originally intended to write, but I think it may help shed additional light on the dreaded issue of Aspie kids getting haircuts. Below is an excerpt from the work, which is available both as a downloadable white paper, and as a printed, bound book.

It’s entitled Crossing the Hurdles of Haircuts. Here’s an excerpt:

Crossing the Hurdles of Haircuts – Introduction

Getting one’s hair cut can be a traumatic experience for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (“AS”) who have extreme physical sensitivities. The result is often tears and trauma for AS children, as well as social embarrassment for them and their parents. These problems may even persist into adulthood, resulting in an unkempt appearance which may ultimately limit the interpersonal and professional prospects of AS adults in subtle but undeniable ways. This book explores the inner workings of haircutting difficulties as experienced by an individual with AS, so that we can better understand and overcome the social, interpersonal, and professional hurdles of a poor first impression that has its origins in an unkempt appearance.

An All-Too-Common Issue

When it comes to getting haircuts, individuals with heightened physical sensitivities, especially those on the Autistic Spectrum (“AS”), can face particular challenges. Parents of “sensory kids” often lament that they are unable to take their sons and daughters to get their hair cut by others, or even give them a trim at home, without enduring puzzling and sometimes embarrassing levels of drama. Tantrums and tears and other behavioral issues often result, which can be confusing, frustrating, and downright maddening for parents.

Why does something so simple have to be so hard?

Now, kids do need to get their hair cut. Having an unkempt appearance can make one vulnerable to teasing and/or ostracism by other kids. Especially as kids get older, a slovenly appearance can be socially isolating and alienating and can sometimes mark a child as a weirdo or an outsider. What’s more, with hair so long that it obstructs their vision, some kids may even have social logistical issues; they may not be able to see well enough to participate in games), or they may not interpret social cues and clues as well as other kids. Just try catching a ball or detecting subtle social hints when your hair is in your face. And, as I’ll describe later, long hair may actually complicate existing sensory issues, just by being long.

But not just Aspie kids can have trouble with haircuts. Even in adulthood, Autistic Spectrum Individuals (“ASI’s”) may have continued issues with getting their hair cut, causing them to delay the dreaded ritual past reasonable timeframes. Some ASI’s will literally wait until the last possible moment, until they can no longer afford (professionally and personally) to have an unkempt appearance, before dragging themselves off to the hairstylist or barber. They may appear neat and well-groomed some of the time, but not nearly as often as would be optimal.

For example, an acquaintance of mine (I’ll call her “Abby”) who is as “classic Aspie” as they come, waits until her main client’s quarterly business meetings to get her hair cut. They’re the Big Cheeses in the client group, the ones who contribute well over 2/3 of her employer’s income. Between quarterly meetings, she lets her hair grow, and although her hairstyle is on the long side, to begin with, it still starts to look increasingly ragged every couple of months. Since Abby works in client services and has regular contact and in-depth interaction with all of her employer’s bread-and-butter customers, this means that the others she serves (between overdue haircuts) are forced to deal with an unkempt, shaggy-headed point person for much of the year. One can well imagine the impression this must make on those “lesser” clients, not to mention the ability of her employer to present the best possible appearance to customers other than the so-called Big Cheese — and so expand their client base.

This bad-hair habit of Abby’s can’t be good for business.

Now, it goes without saying that reluctance to tend to one’s personal appearance can have a negative impact on one’s social and professional relationships, even career aspirations. Personal grooming and appearance is a critical part of any professional’s strategy for success, and neglecting one’s hairstyle because of unrecognized and unaddressed sensory issues can do unintended damage to future professional and financial prospects, not to mention one’s personal life.

Certainly, nobody wants to look their worst at all times. In this often superficial and impersonal world of ours, where first impressions often set the stage for future interactions, having a bad hair day can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure. Nobody likes to think that the only thing that counts is how they look, but the fact of the matter is that many people don’t look past a first impression in their dealings with us. So, having a neat and tidy appearance is essential for those who wish to fully participate in the mainstream.* I firmly believe it’s in the best interests of young ASI’s and their parents to overcome the hurdle of haircuts, to give AS kids the best start possible in an already challenging world.

I have written this work in hopes of shedding some light on the ubiquitous and mysterious conundrum of ASI’s and their haircut hurdles. The coming pages explore this issue through the lens of my own personal sensory and social experiences. As a 43 year-old woman (as of July, 2008) on the Asperger’s end of the Autistic Spectrum, who has both experienced and overcome lifelong difficulties with haircuts (and is able to describe my difficulties and coping mechanisms to others in considerable detail), I’m in a unique position to explain inner workings of circumstances that puzzle, confound, embarrass, and enrage countless parents of AS kids, not to mention obstruct the social and professional success of full-grown ASI’s.

Herein, I describe my own childhood experiences with haircutting rituals, I detail my sensory drama(s), I extend the descriptions into my current adult life, and I show how I cope with the stresses associated with getting my hair cut on a regular basis. I also offer some suggestions at the end for how parents of AS kids and/or full-grown ASI’s may constructively and pro-actively approach the virtual minefield of haircuts.

It is my hope that this work may shed light on common (but often unrecognized) sensory issues which are often particular to the Autistic Spectrum and illustrate the vital part these play in further complicating what is not typically considered an insurmountable obstacle — getting your hair cut. I also hope that this paper may offer encouragement and useful suggestions to parents and ASI’s alike, who struggle regularly with a necessary aspect of life, which “should” — according to many — be “no big deal.” Believe me, you/we are not alone! And we’re not freaks — we’re just very special people with extreme sensitivities which aren’t (yet) particularly well understood.

One thought on “Crossing the Hurdles of Haircuts – Introduction

  1. crystal

    Thank you for helping my understand why my 10 year old will not get a haircut. Everyone assumed that his experience would be just like their own. We tried to understand him, but he couldn’t explain what he was experiencing. Now I also have some ideas of things to try. Very generous of you to share.


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