Getting autism friendly haircuts isn’t easy. However there are a few easy strategies that can make going to the hairdresser a more enjoyable experience. Going to the hairdresser can be very scary for all young children for many reasons.
In this post I will share with you some reasons why children find going to the hairdressers and getting a haircut difficult. I will also give you some simple suggestions, including free social stories, that can help make the experience a good one.
A child’s first visit to the hairdresser can be really scary. For many autistic children a visit to the hairdresser can be very traumatic. I will focus on why a child with autism struggles with the hairdressers and or haircuts, but the reasons may well be applicable to other children too.
Why do children with autism hate having their haircut?
There is no straightforward answer to this question, not all autistic children hate going to the hairdresser but many do. There are a number of reasons why getting a haircut can be difficult for an autistic child. Many of the reasons can be something we just haven’t considered. Finding out the issue for your child may require a bit of detective work.
Most autistic people struggle with sensory issues, these issues vary greatly from one person to the next. Sensory problems at the hairdresser can include:
- Lights – particularly bright lights
- Noise – loud hairdryers, lots of people, clippers
- Touch – some autistic people do not like to be touched and or have people in close contact to them. Having a stranger touch their head and be very close to them can be a difficult experience.
- Smell – some hairdressers will have lots of chemicals around.
Many autistic people have said that getting their haircut is painful and physically hurts them. I was a bit surprised when I first heard this but have since heard it several times and it seems to fit with my sons own reactions to having his haircut. It is described by some as a similar feeling to being cut on your arm. Others have described feeling that their hair is an extension of them and by cutting it you are cutting a part of them.
It is uncomfortable
For others the feeling of a haircut doesn’t hurt but it can still feel strange and uncomfortable. The cutting sensation and feeling vibrations when the hair is cut is an unfamiliar feeling for young children. Getting nails cut can also be a problem. It is likely that many of us still don’t particularly like the feeling of getting a haircut, we are simply used to it.
For many kids having their hair washed is a problem. This can be for many reasons, for example the water, shampoo and touching.
Scissors are scary especially when you don’t know why someone is coming at your head with them! Many young children only experience safety or plastic children’s scissors. So large sharp hairdressers scissors can be very scary. Clippers are another scary piece of kit particularly the buzzing noise right next to your ear.
My son is non-verbal and often if he is distressed it is because he doesn’t understand what is happening or what he is supposed to do. When a child first visits a hairdresser they are unlikely to fully comprehend what is going to happen and why. A lack of understanding can easily cause a child to become upset and want to leave / hide.
Going to the Hairdressers with my autistic son
I think it is very common for children to struggle with their first few haircuts and we just assumed it would get better. For us it got worse each visit. My son would become very distressed and the only way to actually get his haircut was for me to sit on the stool with him on my lap being held down. I hate to say that effectively I have had to restrain my son to get his haircut and I was very upset (and also embarrassed) at the time.
Thankfully since I have found some very helpful tips. I am sharing them with you now in the hope they will help you too.
Tips for autism friendly haircuts:
- Find a good hairdresser
- Social stories
- The right environment
- Build up tolerance
- Change of clothes
- Give it time
Find a good hairdresser
Our hairdresser is amazing, we go to a specialist children’s hairdresser in Bristol called EK Hair. It is such a great place for children to get their haircut, while you are waiting kids can play with a brilliant sensory board. They also have a great selection of children’s DVDs to choose from that the kids can watch while getting their hair done.
The children get to sit in an aeroplane or car to get their haircut! Once the haircut is over they get a biscuit.
Whilst all of this helps to make the experience a great one the key ingredient is the actual hairdresser.
Cutting small children’s hair is such a skill. To cut hair well, quickly whilst dodging little hands trying to bat you away is tough to do. I know I couldn’t do it. You want someone who is patient, skilled, friendly and good with children.
Finding a hairdresser who understands autism is gold. If you know what the key issues are for your child make sure your hairdresser knows. A good hairdresser will make necessary adjustments without any fuss. I would also recommend asking for longer appointments to give your child time to adjust.
I know many parents decide the right option for them is to do it themselves, having a familiar person can be very important for some. Ask friends for recommendations- ours is Chloe at EK Hair in Bristol, she is great at autism friendly haircuts.
I have learnt the hard way that my son needs to be prepared for what is happening. We read books about going to the hairdressers, we love Avril Webster’s Going to the Hairdressers and my nieces love The Fairytale Hairdresser range of books. You can play going to the hairdressers yourselves or with your dolls. There are also some nice hairdressing Playdoh kits that all help with understanding the concept of haircuts. The more preparation you can do the better.
Autism social stories for getting a haircut
Social stories are an amazing tool for exchanging information with young children. They are particularly valuable for children with autism that require structured consistent information. They are also great for children with language difficulties. A social story is a description, (often visual) about everyday activities or events. They detail specific information relating to a situation and what to expect.
Download a free copy of our already prepared social stories:
- Our Going to the Hairdressers Social Story
- Personalised Visiting the Hairdresser Social Story
- EK Hair Social Story
- EK Hair Social Story with Clippers
See my post to learn more about writing social stories.
The right environment
If the hairdresser’s venue is the problem find one that will visit you at home. If it is just the noise you can try out noise cancelling headphones.
I love that our hairdressers have TVs for the kids to watch. For a while we use to take the iPad with us so that my son could hold it and play games, this worked really well. You can always let the child play on your phone if TV and iPad are not an option. Obviously it will be hard (or in some cases impossible) to totally distract from the haircut. However having things available including favourite toys or books are all very helpful.
Explaining what is happening is important to help prepare a child but be aware of the language you use. Some will become upset at the idea of having their hair cut and using the term hair cut over and over can be more stressful for them. Try talking about getting a trim instead. Also try to take care over what you say, they need support and encouragement to learn to cope with getting haircuts. A common phrase when telling a child to stay still is ‘you will get your ear cut off’ this is not helpful and avoid using it.
Build up tolerance
It will take time for a child to become comfortable with haircuts. Try to be consistent and supportive. Touch your child’s head at home, get them used to having their hair brushed. Also comb the child’s hair with your fingers so they get used to this feeling. Head massage is another good technique to build up tolerance to having your head touched. Try to do this when your child is most comfortable and relaxed.
Use a mirror
Make sure your child is facing a mirror while getting their haircut. This helps them to predict when they will be touched each time.
Change of clothes
My son would refuse to wear the gown at first and this means lots of hair all over his arms and neck. The feeling of lots of bits of cut itchy hair on you can be very upsetting. Try to encourage them to wear a gown but this is another thing that some will be uncomfortable with. Having a change of clothes will help get rid of some of the hair quickly.
Depending on your child using clippers may be more stressful or helpful. Clippers mean the haircut is much quicker which works well for us. I have heard good things about calming clippers and plan to look at these myself.
*Edit since lockdown I have had to do the boys hair myself and have been relatively successful using these clippers*
Having a reward for getting through a haircut is such a great strategy. It has made a huge difference for us. Our hairdressers is a couple of shops down from Shakeaway so we would go straight from the hairdressers to have a milkshake. In addition we avoid letting the kids have milkshakes at other times so it is a real treat for them.
Every time we go to the hairdressers we read our social story the night before. We also read it in the car on the way there. I continually remind my son it’s haircut first then milkshake. Consistently relaying this message means my son associates going to the hairdressers with getting a milkshake. Overtime he has learnt to tolerate the haircut to get his milkshake. At our last haircut we varied it up a little and went to McDonalds for our milkshake instead. This went down very well (although we made sure to warn him of this change in advance.
Give it time
My son is non-verbal so I can’t just ask him why he doesn’t like getting his haircut. I have to be observant and try and work it out, not an easy task but over time it gets easier. At one point I would dread going to the hairdressers as I knew how distressed my son would be. I would take friends so they could watch my youngest while I supported my eldest.
This week we had a very successful haircut. Yes he was reluctant and didn’t enjoy the actual cut but our consistency is paying off. There were no tears, he watched the TV throughout his haircut whilst happily sitting on me with no need to be held. This is amazing progress, next step for us will be him sitting on the stool without me!
*He now sits on the stool alone no tears, no distress and is happy to see our hairdresser when we get there. Time and age makes a big difference*
Tips from our Hairdresser
I asked our hairdresser Chloe from EK Hair for her thoughts on giving haircuts to autistic children:
‘I guess from my point of view, it’s key to be quick and confident. We try our best to keep the environment calm and also have a quiet room upstairs which we have used before for autistic children. Every child is different but it helps to try and find out what it is that particular child doesn’t like. i.e hair on them, or someone touching them and do what you can to adapt. I also have one little boy who finds it tickly when I use my comb so I brush his hair with his own special brush first and then apply more pressure when I’m using my comb. Sometimes it can feel worse for the child when your trying to be gentle.‘
I hope this post is helpful. I would love to hear how you get on and your top tips for taking your child to the hairdresser in the comments below.