Here’s some personal insight on what it’s like for me (a highly sensitive Aspie) to have my hair cut. It’s 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.
What It Means for Me
Now, when I was a little girl, I wasn’t allowed to act out, (or else!) so I can’t remember having any full-on meltdowns while getting my hair cut around other people. Then again, I may have just blocked out the experience(s). I do recall, however, that my mother dreaded taking me to the salon when I was a teenager, and I dreaded going — and if I recall correctly, my mother actually told me once that our hairdresser dreaded cutting my hair as much as I dreaded her cutting it. But specific incidents aside, I do remember haircuts being very hard for me, and afterwards I was usually reeling from the experience, so I often acted out at home with wild behavior, racing around the house, jumping on furniture, beating up my younger brother, yelling and screaming and acting very “unladylike” I can assure you! Nobody around me understood what I was going through. All they knew was that I looked nice, and that’s what mattered. And the fact that I now looked so pretty and acted so ugly was difficult for my parents and people close to me to handle. Believe me, it was just as confusing and frustrating for me!
I still don’t get my hair cut as often as I probably should — but I’m aware of it, so I make a point of taking steps to get myself to the barber before I start to look like my friend Abby. It won’t help my career any, to look like I’ve been living on a desert island. And it doesn’t do much for my social life, either — and I need all the help I can get, with that part of my life!
I now go to a small barber shop where there aren’t a lot of hair products around, and I go in off hours so I don’t have to interact with a lot of people. I don’t mind waiting in line among men with their Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and Sports Illustrated magazines. It’s a small price to pay for sensory relief. A regular women’s salon is too overpowering for me, in just about every physical way. Now, I’ve often thought about letting my hair grow long and not even bothering with haircuts, but it’s not an option. I actually tried it a few times, when I was 13, before I got it cut. As I mentioned, I wore the same pig tails from when I was 7 till I was about 13, and the other kids at school started telling me how I could change my hairstyle. I took them seriously, and I decided to try to wear my hair long. I learned some important things in the process, however.
First, there’s too much friggin’ hair! It was all over the place. I have very fine, thick hair, and I found the little strands getting stuck all over the place — in my eyes, in my mouth… It drove me crazy! I tried pulling it back in a single ponytail, but that was still out of control. I just wasn’t well-coordinated enough to keep my ponytail in place. I kept bumping into things and knocking the hair loose and having it flying all over the place. And I would also end up catching my hair on things, or getting snagged. I’d be walking past something — a cupboard, for example — and I’d get snagged on the handle or a corner or something, and my hair would fly all over.
Also, when my hair was longer, my sensory issues were actually worse than when I would intermittent haircuts. It’s still the case — I feel everything through my hair, and I find myself having to hold my head more still, in order to keep my balance. The weight of the heavy hair (and I have a lot of it) throws me off, and puts me off balance. And I’m not dainty and coordinated enough to hold my head just-so, and keep my hairstyle in place. Of course, I could have just tied my hair back in a bun, but that would have made me look like a little old lady, and anyway, I didn’t want to have to keep that tightly-fitted bun in place. I was such an active — and often uncoordinated — kid, that any attempts I made at keeping a lot of hair neatly in place, went the way of the dinosaurs — but much quicker than their demise, I can assure you.
So, as much as I wanted to avoid having to get constant haircuts, not getting haircuts proved to be more of a challenge than I wanted to deal with each day. I just gave it up. I sometimes think about doing it again, and dispensing with haircuts completely. But then I remember my past experiences, and I head for the barbershop.
Yes, haircuts can still be a challenge for me, but they’re things I need to “tough out” on a regular basis, so I’ve developed some pretty effective coping mechanism. While I’m in the barber chair, I find that if my senses are directed somewhere other than the haircut, I can actually do it. I still tend to get agitated by the whole experience; I’m keyed up and distracted by all the sensory input, so I concentrate deliberately on my breathing. And I consciously relax. Sometimes I can’t even feel my arms and legs. So, for the relatively short time I’m in the barber chair (my haircuts usually take only 15 minutes or so), I concentrate really hard on my breathing… I count my breaths — 1-2-3-4… 1-2-3-4… I do this thing I call “nasal breathing” (which I also do at the dentist), where I focus on breathing heavily through my nose, so that my breath echoes throughout my head and ears, and it distracts me from what’s going on around me. Sometimes it sounds odd (which makes it a better coping mechanism for the dentist’s office, which is way too loud, to begin with), but it’s a useful last resort.
I also deliberately put my attention on my arms and legs, relaxing them and tightening them and wiggling my toes and fingers. I deliberately, consciously try to relax…. I fiddle with my eyeglasses under the sheet… while I keep my eyes closed until the hair stops falling… and when I can open my eyes (which makes it easier to keep my balance), I focus on the glass cylinder with the blue sanitizing solution sitting on the barber’s work counter — the one that has all the long thin combs in it — 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 regular, neurotypical person.
At times, it’s an effort, just to interact normally and not withdraw and act autistic and make everyone in the place really nervous, but I can do it.