Handling Haircuts… Autism and the Barber Shop

H has hair that seems to grow very, very fast! We have to go frequently to the barber – but I will share a few tricks we have learned – well more like… figured out along the way.

First though, let me tell you about the last time we went for a haircut. I talked to H about self-advocacy, and had him explain to the stylist that he needed the tiny strip of papery material and the towel tight around his neck – because the tiny hairs are a terrible sensory issue.

The woman wisely suggested to H, “I’ll let you put the paper tissue on – because I am not sure how tight you want it.”

H responded, “I’ll want to tie it really tight – but not so tight it kills me!”

For the first time ever – he also wanted to look through one of the hairstyle books to consider and choose his haircut. I was interested in the new development that he wanted some say in the way he looks. Ahhhh yes, 13! His choice, not surprisingly, a style reminiscent of the 80’s. (He says he looks like the T-1000 from The Terminator movies.)

H indicated that he wanted me to take him to the used-book store after the haircut, where he was interested in finding a book on magic.

He has come a very long way…

Here is the tale of our journey some of the strategies that have helped us get to this point:

When H was small we always let the stylist know that H was autistic, had sensory issues, and challenges sitting still. I figured people with sharp things close to my child needed to be armed with as much information as possible to help make the experience a safe and positive one. Also… these are important opportunities to build understanding within the community where someday my boy will be an adult.

Craig recollects that the barber shop was his first experience of telling someone in the public that his child was Autistic: “The barber was the first non-family member I had ever told about H’s autism, and it was it was a positive experience.” He said that the barber lightened up – and this helped H be more relaxed, and thus Craig was more at ease as well. He used to take H when he was really small and he would have to help hold H’s chin/head still. The sensory issue of the sound of the razor and the feel of it on his neck made him jump. Craig remembers that they would always get a brownie and chocolate milk at the bakery next door after the haircut – no matter how well the hair cut went. Craig understood that H was trying his best.

We pre-booked appointments when H was small and planned for times so that the shop was not busy, was less stimulating (read less overwhelming), and there would be little or no wait-time before the haircut.

We have had hairstylists – a number of them along the way – that have really given H careful attention and warning about what was coming. They let him touch the shaver, play with the lift on the chair, and have patiently showed and explained what was happening at each step.  They have talked endlessly with him about his interests: most often now the topic for the barber is film (horror or action) or video games.

When he was tiny – H would sit on my lap and we would both be under the Darth Vader cape. He loves deep pressure – so I could hold him close and he was often given the spray bottle of water to shoot at the mirror, and sometimes even a rather good-natured stylist.

As he got older, I would sit in a chair beside him – prompting and encouraging the socialization with the stylist. He gradually gave up the spray bottle – but he really fussed about all of the little hairs. He would have a serious sensory overload if the hairs were on him.

He would reach up and rub the hairs on his face – and that would only make it worse. It took some time to teach him to keep his hands down under the “cape” but he finally developed a trust the stylist would care for him and remove the hairs.

We actually had to bring an additional shirt so he could change  when we were done. H would slip in to the back of the shop and he would change right there. Then we would race home so he could get into the tub – to rid himself of the offending hairs of sensory doom!

We took care to develop a relationship with one particular hairstylist and H even brought her little presents at Christmas and other times too. We’d sometimes drop by when he wasn’t getting a hair cut – just so he could make the connection. The giving of items was important as it seemed to assist him with something tangible in terms of developing episodic memory and a sense of history and connectedness with this person.

Another issue that has been problematic is the sensory overload of the odors of the salon. (I dislike the smell as well – Aaaack!) We found that if we popped a tic-tac or a piece of gum into H’s mouth just before we walked through the door – that would eliminate (or lessen) the response to the smell. We overloaded his senses with a preferred smell so it blocked the others… and by the time this had worn off he didn’t notice the odor of all of the chemicals as much. (Trident Strawberry Splash is wonderful – because it is so intense and lovely to smell.)

The next step we made was for H to wear the same shirt home (without changing). When we began, H would almost burst through the door at home and race into the shower. Eventually we were able to plan a short outing to a favourite destination after the haircut – without need to rush home immediately.

Here is a picture of H wearing his Terminator sunglasses invention at the Emporium (one of our post-hair-cut destinations) You can imagine the lure of this place for my kitsch-loving retro-pop-culture buff!! It is a film, music, sci-fi and retro treasure-trove.This last time H got his hair cut – just before we headed to Arizona TASH – we followed the trim with the requested visit to the bookstore – and H did procure a lovely used book about Magic.

When we got home I said, “OK buddy – into the tub with you…”

H responded, “Nah… I can wait till tonight! I’m fine mom!” and he went off to delve into his new book and pursue mastery of his latest sleight of hand trick.

Sometimes when I stop and ponder how far our child has come I can hardly believe it … and sometimes… it really feels like magic!! And though H would tell you that magicians are not supposed to reveal their secrets, I feel I must again share that years ago the OT at Children’s Hospital who evaluated H’s sensory issues suggested she had seldom seen a child with such severe sensory challenges across multiple (all) domains.  Perhaps these experiences with H are a hopeful reminder that with support and encouragement many sensory responses can become more integrated as a child grows and develops. This journey can be challenging at times… but even tiny steps can take one a very long way… and time is on our side!


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2012)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in Arizona TASH, Aspergers, Autism, Episodic Memory, hair cuts, self-advocacy, Sensory Processing Disorder, SPD and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Handling Haircuts… Autism and the Barber Shop

  1. Go H! The barber is definitely a sensory nightmare for me, and the constant chit chat that happens is even worse! Especially when my mother also goes to the same stylist, and tells him all about me and about the private lives of everyone around us, then he asks ME all about them too (UGH). I have finally found one I like where I’m living now (far far away from my mother), who trims my hair without large amounts of conversation. They only charge $15 for a cut, and so I give them a $20 (I tip nicely), and can bolt easily after. But really, the important thing is that Autistic children grow up. We get better at coping on our own. We learn how to function in the world. And we become Autistic Adults. It sounds like H is doing an excellent job at growing up and becoming more independent. And you, of course, are doing a wonderful job of guiding him. Cheers. 🙂


  2. coyotetooth says:

    I’m not much of an expert on hair cuts. I suffered my mother’s touch–the bowl-on-head-cut-a-round. I was good at tuning out the world; drifting into imaginary worlds. Military was the sit down 2 minute sheep-sheering-shave. Now, wife clips just the ends on occasion.

    Now, I have shaved sensitive autistic adults with full beards. 4 hours, 16 razor blades, in 10 minute intervals. Helps when they’ve asked for it, and have worked with them for years. Building the trust.

    H seems to be doing well! Great job!


  3. Reading this actually brought tremendous insight into not Emma, but my husband’s horror of those offensive little hairs. Richard cannot tolerate them! He immediately comes home and leaps into the shower to wash everything off. In the past, I’ve always been somewhat incredulous – but they just washed your hair – I would remind him, unhelpfully.
    Now I get it. It’s a sensory thing.
    Good for H. And good for you, Leah!


  4. Leigh Forbes says:

    “…offending hairs of sensory doom!” Hahaha! I totally understand that, both for the small boy and for myself. He used to scream at the hairdressers, from start to finish. I’d have to hold him on the chair, while he clutched at me in terror. And they quickly learned that clippers were out of the question. But gradually, he has learned to cope, and now sits happily and “chats” to the stylist. He even tolerates the clippers (as long as she doesn’t use the really buzzy ones). I think he’s made huge progress, but accept that we’ll always have an issue with the hairs of doom!


  5. Wendy says:

    I LOVE the example of using gum/tic tacs to lessen the effect of smells! We will definitely be trying that one.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Yes… that helps going to many places – like the healthfood store. H wouldn’t even take a step in though the door with that weird yeasty smell. I hope it works for you! Thanks for your comment, Wendy 🙂


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