This is the conclusion 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. It pretty much sums up the experience.
For some folks on the Autistic Spectrum, few experiences are as anxiety-producing as having one’s hair cut. Unfortunately, still fewer experiences are as necessary and as unavoidable. One’s personal appearance, in some circles, can mean the difference between acceptance and ostracism.* Whether you’re an adult or a child, first impressions often count far more than most of us would like. Indeed, in the impersonal world of everyday interaction with complete strangers, something as basic as “bad hair” can subtly disqualify both casual social butterflies and highly trained professionals from the kinds of connections and advancement that will keep their interpersonal lives and their careers afloat.
But the routine experience of having one’s hair styled is not without complications for individuals on the Autistic Spectrum. In ASD kids, the very thought of the ritual can bring on tears, tantrums, and meltdowns. And the actual experience itself can result in humiliation for parents, frustration for hairstylists, and the start of a string of “bad days” for AS kids. Even some AS adults may have such intense sensory issues during hair cutting and styling that they avoid getting a simple trim until they are all but unpresentable.
But this is not without cause. For those of us with physical sensory issues, a simple haircut can be an assault on all the senses.
One’s sense of sight can be assaulted by a salon’s fluorescent lights and distracted by the flashing of metal scissors.
One’s hearing can be thrown off by something as simple as the sound of a scissors slicing through hair, or the rapid-fire on-off switching of a hand-held hairdryer during styling. Sudden loud sounds like hairspray shooting out of a can, or the loud hiss of water in a shampoo sink can startle us. And the constant verbal banter between hairdressers and customers can be overwhelming and disorienting for non-verbal or visual thinkers.
One’s sense of smell can be overwhelmed by countless complimentary and conflicting scents of hair products and other cosmetics.
One’s sense of touch can be put on edge by the feel of hair “snipples” landing on and sticking to one’s skin, and water from a shampoo or spray bottle dampening one’s neck, face, or the edge(s) of clothing can be very disturbing and distracting. Even the sensation of hair being cut, can be disorienting.
And one’s sense of balance can be thrown off by the need to sit absolutely still, while a scissors comes dangerously close to one’s ears, nose, and eyes. The feeling that you’re falling can cause all the senses to be further heightened, thus exacerbating the stressful effect of all the other overloaded senses, combined.
Thankfully, in some cases, simple accommodations and preparation may help integrate this important activity into the flow of one’s life in ways that enhance not only one’s appearance, but one’s ability to interact with the the NT world at large. Finding a relatively quiet time to visit the hairdresser, or taking steps to lessen the physical stimuli around the one getting their hair cut, can head problems off at the pass. “Stimming” or making focused contact with certain textures or sensations, to bring one’s physical attention to a single point (instead of “flying” all around the hair-cutting space) can help, too. Every AS person is unique, and what works for one may not work for others, so some experimentation is in order. But with time and patience and persistent attention to the physical environment and the AS individual’s responses to the environment, it is possible to turn haircuts from impossible ordeals into a task that may be unpleasant, but is at least tolerable.
I hope this brief work has given you a sense of what some of us Aspies go through with haircuts. And I hope it heightens your sensitivity around what conditions can spell trouble, and what may help you or your Aspie kid to have successful haircuts. It might sound pretty bad, the way I describe the haircut experience, and you may feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged by it, but remember that I’ve had years of intentional practice, and I’ve learned to adapt.
In the end, I believe that we all have our “stuff” we need to get through… our challenges, our shortcomings, our foibles, our hurdles. Just because not everyone has difficulties with haircuts doesn’t mean they’re any less important or less serious — they’re just different and require different strategies.
With time, and the right mix of sensitivity, imagination, practical coping skills, and determination, I’m convinced that even the most intransigent case of haircut-phobia can be overcome.
It just takes time.