Take the cut out of haircut for kids with autism

Published on January 23, 2014 by in News


“Our toddler son fights like a badger during haircuts,” writes a dad. “Any suggestions?”

Only a few dozen!

Shakespeare wasn’t talking about a hair salon when he spoke of “the unkindest cut of all.” He likely never have had the hair-raising–literally–experience of taking a reluctant youngster with autism for a haircut. Many aspects of a hair salon or barber shop are similar to a doctor’s or dentist’s office: strange furniture, scary tools of the trade, unfamiliar chemical smells and potentially long, anxious waits. Home hair cuts pose many of the same problems. If getting a haircut causes your child an afternoon of anguish, consider these ideas and accommodations, from my book 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s:

  • Don’t use the word “cut.” Children know that cuts hurt. A cut finger hurts, a cut knee hurts; it follows that a haircut will hurt. Talk instead about getting her hair shortened, trimmed, tidied up, styled or out of her eyes.
  • Mom or Dad: visit the salon ahead of time and talk with the stylist about ways to make the experience as pleasant as possible for everyone. Can she use a chair at a quieter end of the salon, or away from the sinks, with their constant traffic going back and forth? Share tidbits of information about the child with the stylist (his favorite topics, DVDs, toys, etc.) and snap a photo of the stylist to show to the child prior to the visit. Prep the stylist too, telling him/her ahead of time about what might happen, how she should/should not respond, when to let Mom or Dad step in.
  • The typical salon chair that goes up and down and all around may not only be a vestibular problem—his feet don’t touch the footrest—but also resembles the chair at the dentist’s office. Ask the stylist to offer a stationary stool or chair with a solid footrest at the child’s height. If the chair is much larger than he is, downsize the seating area by tucking a pillow on either side of him and/or in his lap.
  • Ask your stylist to stash away curling irons, scissors, hair dryers and other gear she will not be using for your child. Shiny metal implements may evoke doctor or dentist office associations. Skip the cape and the neck tape if the smell or texture bothers him. A soft towel (from home, if needed) works just as well.
  • Ask that your child face away from the mirror during the haircut. Seeing sharp scissors or clippers flying about or near his eyes and ears may be terrifying.
  • Plastic-handled or covered-handle scissors and plastic combs can reduce the amount of glare that can bounce off metal cutting/grooming utensils.
  • Ask for an appointment at the slowest time of day and ask that overhead music be turned down or off. Ask for extra time so the child does not feel rushed or forced, and ask that your child not be scheduled when a person in the salon chair nearby is getting any type of strong smelling treatment (like a permanent).
  • Don’t schedule an appointment for a time when your child is likely to be tired (end of day or right before nap), hungry (right before lunch) or unhappy (is missing his favorite show).
  • Call ahead to confirm that the stylist is running on time. Ask that everything be ready to go when you walk in so there is no anxiety-building wait.
  • Offer a hand-held game or a board book as a distraction.
  • Ask the stylist to explain, briefly and in simple words, what she’s going to do before doing it. “I’m going to spray water on your hair first, then comb it, then start shaping it.” Many children with autism can’t stand having their hair sprayed; if this is true of your child, ask the stylist to dampen his hair by spraying the water on her hands or comb, then running it through his hair. She can also ask him if she can spray his arm first, to demonstrate. (Honor whatever he says.) Our favorite stylist has a lot of luck with fearful kids by letting them spray her first. They love it.
  • Many children with autism can’t tolerate buzzing clippers. Anything that makes them jump, cringe or twist in the chair is a safety hazard, with potential for injury to tender ears, eyes and necks. Opt for a scissor or razor-cut style.
  • If your child shows interest, the stylist can demonstrate the equipment before using it on the child. For instance, she could run the electric clippers (with the guard on) across her arm so the child sees it won’t cut his skin. Or bring a stuffed toy or a doll and have the stylist first demonstrate on the toy. Parents can also use the animal or doll as a visual cue to pantomime instructions from the stylist, such as “turn your head to the right” or “chin down.”
  • Have the stylist shape up the front, sides and nape of the neck first. That way if the experience goes sour before the cut is complete, he won’t look lopsided. Our stylist calls this her “fireman’s cut.” When she’s cutting hair at the fire station, the bell may ring at any time and firefighters must be ready to go that instant. Your otherwise reluctant youngster just might agree to sit like a fireman.
  • Ask ahead of time if the salon offers treats or rewards. If it’s something your child is not allowed to have (sugar, allergy trigger, non-kosher), ask that it not be offered, or that a substitute item be offered (such as a sticker).
  • Take a fresh shirt to the salon with you. Those tiny leftovers hairs around the collar could drive him crazy.
  • Buy an inexpensive doll at a garage sale or thrift shop and let your child give the doll a haircut. If he doesn’t handle scissors yet, he can still pantomime the haircut. Repeat the haircut simulations from time to time between actual haircuts.
  • Finally, if your child isn’t able to tolerate salon visits yet, inquire about having the stylist make a house visit instead. Many do. Or, seek out a stylist who works out of her home. In most cases, you and your child will be the only clients there and it allows you and the stylist to better control the environment to suit the child.


Adapted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk (2010, Future Horizons).


One Response to “Take the cut out of haircut for kids with autism”

  1. Svend la Rose says:

    You left out one tip: Don’t force haircuts on a child who wants to grow their hair long or who otherwise is exercising their autonomy right to not have their haircut. There’s no harm in having boys with long hair. In fact, some men (think Jared Leto for one) look great with long hair! So if your autistic kid makes an informed refusal, honor it.

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