Haircuts and Autism: 5 Steps to a Better Experience

The dreaded haircut.  The impending screams and crying are enough to keep any parent from scheduling an appointment.  Maybe you know it’s going to be difficult or perhaps you’re already traumatized from the last experience.  Many little ones have a difficult time with haircuts, but children on the autism spectrum can really struggle with this.  Having to sit still, strange people touching hair, and the noise of blow-dryers can set the stage for a tough afternoon.  If you’re ready leave the crooked bangs from attempting to trim them at home behind, I can offer some tips for making this a better experience for you and your child.

  1. Find a place that specializes in children with autism
  2. Thankfully,  the world is catching on to the fact that some of us have different needs.  Many salons specialize in cutting children’s hair and often there are people who are particularly good at working with children on the autism spectrum.  They may not be able to work magic, but at least they may have more understanding about what your child is going through.  Doing your research and calling around can help you identify the right fit for your child.

  3. Ask if you can come in before opening
  4. If you live in a place where autism specialization isn’t possible, you can still call ahead and see if they will take you early before the rest of the salon opens up.  This will cut down on the noise, and make it easier to cater the experience to your child’s specific needs.  Most importantly, your child should feel less stress, but it doesn’t hurt to cut down on your stress, too.

  5. Practice
  6. Once you know where you’re going, practice is important.  You can break down the steps for in-home practice or work your way up to walking in the salon and sitting in the chair.  If your child has had a bad experience before, he or she may struggle to get in the door.  If your child starts crying or refuses to walk in the door as soon as you get to the hair salon, desensitization may be for you.

    Desensitization

    You may want to start small.  You can break the process up and work your way closer and closer to the full experience.  You can do this by identifying a reinforcer and letting your child know what is going to happen.  You may want to think about using visuals to help your child understand what you are going to do.  Prepare your child for what is going to happen and let them know that if they complete that step, they can have whatever the potential reinforcer is.  (E.g., “We’re just going to walk to the door.  After you do that, you can have your Paw Patrol game.”)  For each step, once completed successfully, you would deliver the reinforcer and then leave.  The next time you could try one step further.  If a step isn’t successful, you can go back a step the next time.  Be careful not to push too far, as we want to set your child up for success.  You will also want to make sure to provide reinforcement right away.  Some suggestions of steps to break this into:

    • Driving by
    • Pulling into parking lot
    • Walking up to door
    • Going inside
    • Meeting the stylist
    • Walking over to chair
    • Sitting in the chair
    • Having hair combed
    • Having water sprayed on hair
    • Cutting hair
    • Drying hair (if necessary)
    Practice at home

    Aside from systematically working your way up to the actual experience, you can break the process of getting a haircut into steps and practice at home.  Maybe you set up a chair in front of a mirror and put a smock on your child.  You can practice combing hair and spritzing with water.

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  7. Reinforcement
  8. No matter how you choose to approach it, reinforcement will be key here.  When we’re shaping behavior, we want to reinforce what we want more of.  So, following the behavior we want, such as calmly walking to the door or letting you practice combing at home without screaming, you want to provide something your child wants.  Reinforcement following a behavior determines what you will get more of.  I would think about a few items that are easy to deliver in the moment (not something your child has to wait to get home for) and offer them to your child to see what he or she would like.

  9. Something to Occupy
  10. Once your child is at the stage of sitting in the chair, you might want to think about having something to occupy him or her.  If he has a favorite book or she loves her iPad, you may be able to keep them calm in the chair that way.  This should be something different from the reinforcer, though.  We want to save the best for after they’ve completed whatever step we are on.

Your child may not need all of these things, but you can take whatever pieces you think will help.  I know it can be exhausting trying to take care of errands like this, but preparing can help you support your child and make this a better experience for both of you.