Autism (Un)Friendly Haircuts

I have to cut my son’s hair again soon. It is, easily, the worst thing I have to do. Not only in terms of things I do for him but in my entire life as a whole. I’m pretty sure it’s at the top of his worst things list too.

Lucas has always been fairly easy to manage when it comes to loud noises. Although non-verbal, his autism never caused him to fear commotion or dark spaces. I’ve seen him completely ignore fireworks exploding overhead while focusing on his iPad. When I finally got him to look up, he glanced and then gave me a look as if to say, “Yeah. Fireworks. Great.” Just as quickly, he turned back to the iPad.

For some reason, though, he hates getting his hair cut. Unfortunately no one informed his head of this because within weeks, his cranium is covered in a course coat of brown shag carpet that seems to grow wider by the day. It makes buzz cuts more than a luxury. They become a necessity.

img_2125Early on, my wife would take him to local barbers. As a baby, the first few were smooth sailing. Then, as he started to develop his own personality and the ability to express himself, things took a turn. The battles that ensued eventually lead her to look for specialty hair salons that worked with children on the Autism spectrum. She found some listed in the special needs section of a local parenting magazine but they seemed to be just as challenging. Following many miserable returns home, she asked if I would take him the next time. I agreed.

After all, how hard could it be? These people were prepared for this. They took out ads promising to handle children like my son. Who would do that without having the proper training to deal with this type of situation?

The answer: These people. They would do that without having the proper training to deal with this type of situation.

There were little fire-engine seats and TVs equipped with Netflix. So all appeared to be good to go as I strapped him in for a fiery adventure of hair loss. I prepared to sit back, cheer him on, and go home as a haircut hero to the house. His head shall be buzzed and I shall return from the encounter unscathed. Everyone would cheer.

That didn’t even come close to happening. Within the first minute of screaming, it became apparent that I would have to help restrain him from trying to grab the buzzer or scissors. What followed was a ten minute game of angry Twister that left us with an awful haircut and an even more awful memory.

The worst part? Halfway through this showdown, I peered up and saw the hair stylist look over to the receptionist at the front desk, bug out her eyes, and let out a silent exaggerated sigh. I didn’t say anything because I really wanted to finish what we had started, but I decided right then and there that, at least until he was older, I would never bring him there, or anywhere, for a haircut again.

img_4665I’ve seen the pictures of the barber sitting on the floor with a boy on spectrum to put him at ease. I’m very much aware that not all places are like this. However, the willingness of many unqualified establishments to advertise as “autism friendly” in local magazines is staggering. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of checks and balances. In order to be “autism friendly”, you just have to say you are. They treat this label as a way to get more customers as opposed to a genuine service that families rely on. It’s a horrible experience when you realize, as a parent, that you’re in one of those places. Halfway through a haircut is one of the worst times to discover that one.

That was a few years ago and we still do haircuts at home. Luckily, I bought a special quieter buzzer from Philips Norelco. I like to think it helps, but I’m not really sure. I’m not even sure if it’s the noise that bothers him. Either way, we get it done.

He and I still have wrestling matches. I still shower him with cookies and affection after it’s over. At least now, though, it’s just him and me. They don’t take as long and, while still difficult, are nowhere near as hard as they were in that fire engine chair. We understand each other and he knows that I love him. He might still hate it, but he has me there doing it and not a stranger. He’s my little guy. If anyone is going to bug their eyes out and sigh across the room, I should be the one doing it.