Haircutting Tips and Tricks
Krystal Showers MSOS, OTR/L
Haircutting is one of the most difficult routines for children, especially boys, with autism. It is consistently an area that parents mention is so difficult for them, and a nightmare for their children. When we stop and break it down, it is easier to understand why this routine in particular sends so many households into panic. Families literally plan out haircutting day/ night, recruit support via extra hands and bodies to help, amp themselves up for what it means with meltdowns, and prepare to deal with a half-buzzed head for a while if need be!
Let’s look at haircutting from a sensory processing perspective first before we get into some tips and tricks!
This is the big one for our friends with autism. I had one child describe the sound of high pitched noises, like the buzz of clippers, as “a sharp needle that stabs all the way into my brain”. Think- how would you like that right up next to your ears, let alone tolerate it for a good 15-20 minutes without becoming upset! Children with autism often have very sensitive hearing and can have difficulty filtering out noises. The sound of clippers can be unnerving, especially in a barber shop where there may be more than one pair going at a time or multiple people talking at the same time.
Haircutting involves vibration tactile input which may be aversive to the child. What we may consider as a “tickling” sensation from the vibration, may actually feel like sandpaper or pins and needles. Even if you are using regular scissors, the light touch of their hair falling on their neck or skin can feel painful and like they are being stabbed with each tiny hair.
Many children with autism have a high need for movement. Sitting still in a seat for a haircut can be very difficult. For children whose vestibular or movement sense is very poor, sitting still can be almost impossible as they crave movement as a basic need….just like food when you are really hungry!
If your child is getting their hair cut in a salon or barber shop there can be a LOT of smells in one small space. Children with autism can have a very sensitive sense of smell and can respond negatively to smells that others may not notice or be bothered by. With all the different people, shampoos, conditioners, dyes, etc., it can be a lot to take in!
How to make this routine easier for you and your child!
- Use scissors to cut hair rather than clippers
- Provide headphones and music the child can control to help block out clipper sounds
- Try haircuts at home or during very slow times of the day at a barber shop to decrease the amount of sounds in their environment
- If you have been trained in the Deep Touch Pressure Protocol by your occupational therapist doing the brushing protocol prior to haircuts will help your child stay calm and decrease some of the sensitivity to touch
- Try to cover ALL the skin that stray hairs could land on using a towel or smock
- Let the child experience the vibration from clippers on their hands first (ie: let them hold the clippers without the blade on so they can feel and get used to the vibration
- Before starting, provide some deep squeezes to the child’s head (like a firm head massage) moving down to shoulders and arms as well to help prepare the child and give some calming input
- Use a move-n-sit cushion during haircutting so they child is able to get some movement but still stay in their seat
- Engage in intense swinging, spinning or bouncing prior to asking the child to sit for a haircut
- Take short movement breaks to stand and jump and then sit back down
- Try haircuts at home or during very slow times of the day to limit the number of extra smells the child is exposed to
- Bring a small cloth with a favorite smell on it (ie: lavender or peppermint essential oils) for the child to hold up to their nose when the other smells become overwhelming
Here’s a video of Caleb getting his hair cut. Check out his sweet cape!
And here’s a video of Caleb cutting daddy’s hair!