For my non-verbal child, haircuts used to be hell on Earth. At a young age, Lucas approached hairdressers as if I was selling him into human trafficking with his heartbreaking meltdowns. At a time when I first learning to understand autism, these episodes made keeping him looking sharp all next to impossible.
There were a number of awful appointments that culminated with one stylist who advertised herself as “autism friendly.” Eventually I surmised that to her, “autism friendly” meant that she didn’t murder them, because there was nothing understanding or knowledgeable about her approach. At one point, while I was helping to hold him still during the tornado of buzzing and screaming, I looked up and saw her let out a deep sigh while rolling her eyes at the receptionist across the room. It was the last public cut he got. That was years ago.
My switch to DIY home haircuts was the official start of our monthly battles. He’d see it coming, cover his head, and spend the next 40 minutes fighting me tooth and nail. Nothing was too dangerous to this kid as he’d spin his head and reach for the cutter with his bare hands. The result for him was tears, cuts, and a halfway haircut. The result for me was tears, cuts, and a piece of my soul being wrenched from my body every time I swept the bathroom floor.
There were expensive “quiet buzzers” and bizarre scissor things that all promised to make autism-friendly haircuts more autism-friendly. In the end, they did nothing.
At one point, I even swore off haircuts for the summer and he wound up looking like he had a giant toupee on. My boy was barely six, but you’d think he was an elderly lounge singer/comedian in the Catskills. He looked less like a “Lucas” and more like a “Shecky.”
Haircuts were the bane of my existence. They hovered over my life, beckoning me from afar through his growing follicles. People suggested everything from cutting his hair in his sleep to letting him grow a tiny afro. I just accepted that I would always have to fight him and he would always hate haircuts.
And then, one day, he didn’t.
I have no idea what changed in his life, but it was like someone turned on a switch. He stood in front of the bathroom sink, as he always had, and focused on the iPad, as he always had. I turned on the buzzer, prepared for the inevitable worst, and put the Norelco to his head.
And he didn’t care.
The usually dire scene became an uneventful cut. His shocking reaction was so mellow that he allowed me even scissors to style the top. Two weeks earlier, we both would have been blugeoned. Now, he was cool. I figured this was an anomaly, but didn’t look the gift horse in the mouth. He’s been that way every time since.
The questions usually follow, “How do you make your child with autism like haircuts? How did you get him over it?” To this, I usually give myself a mental pat on the back and credit his acceptance to how, despite the rough encounters, I cut his hair more often to get him used to it. That was true. I also prepped him for it by putting my hand against his head in the hours prior while making a buzzing noise. I still do that today. I have my ways. I made a miracle. I’m an autism parenting genius, you know.
Sounds good, but deep down, I know it almost completely had nothing to do with me. This was all him. One day, he just got sick of fighting and said, “Let’s just do this”… I think.
Who knows? He could have realized it never hurt to get his haircut and all the fuss was for naught. He could have grown tired of looking like a little 1960s British rocker and wanted a smart clean buzz. He could have just gotten older and figured, “Let the old man do his thing.” I have no idea.
The only thing that I do have an idea about is that this was all him. It wasn’t me, as much as I want to pretend it is.
Often, we do that. Parents to kids with special needs take credit for their children overcoming tough moments. We ask each other for secrets and reasons. What did you do to make him more comfortable? How did you convince her to put that hat on her head? There are tons of questions that all center around a magical parenting moment we’re all desperate to remedy.
I find, though, that a lot of his maturity starts and ends with him. He no longer fights me on haircuts, just as he no longer runs into danger the moment he lets go of my hand. He doesn’t flip furniture over for some strange reason or even chew on his clothes as often as he used to. He’s the only one who probably knows why, but he’s not talking. He deserves all the credit. He also deserves all the praise.
The other issue is that, with a kid like him, it’s simple to miss the major changes he’s made because we can still focus on the major changes still left to happen. If I obsess about his inability to use a fork or determination to throw things out of his room when he wants my attention, I lose sight of the haircuts, running, and dry sleeves that I prayed for a solution to yesterday. I miss out on today’s progress if I harp on the obstacles still left to overcome tomorrow.
So, ask me about his easy going haircuts and what I did to make them better. I can tell you some approaches to be more understanding, but not why it happened. The best I can do is guess on his behalf and say that the reason is because he’s cool as hell. That’s pretty much all there is to it.