From loud hair dryers, to the clicking of clippers, strong chemical smells and the challenge of sitting still, a trip to the hair salon is often anything but relaxing for children on the autism spectrum and their parents.
“It was always a huge ordeal,” recalls Elizabeth Moss, of Zionsville, whose 3-year-old son has autism. “He would be screaming and crying, and the person cutting his hair would be uncomfortable, and I would be covered in sweat from trying to hold him down and the stress of it all.”
The issue of how to make haircuts easier for kids with sensory sensitivities is a common topic among special needs families. Here we’ve asked local stylists and parents to share their best tips.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Do your research when picking a hair salon, barber shop or individual stylist and call ahead to explain your child’s needs. You might ask if you can get the last appointment of the day so the place won’t be as busy, or see if you can book back-to-back appointments in case your child needs extra time to adjust.
Danielle Schrier, a Plainfield stylist who’s well known for working with kids on the spectrum, encourages families to give stylists as much information as they can about their child’s personality, sensory issues and aversions.
“There has to be a level of openness between the person who is doing the haircut and the child,” she says. “The stylist has to be open and understanding of these kids, because you really can’t force a child to get a haircut.”
When talking to your child ahead of time about the upcoming appointment, a social story can help ease anxiety. Some parents also suggest using the word “trim” instead of “cut” if you know your child has a tendency to take words very literally.
Take time to explore
Once at the salon, the stylist should talk your child through what will happen and give them time to check out the equipment. Clippers, in particular, can bother boys on the spectrum who might dislike the clicking sound and vibrations. Ask the stylist to demonstrate how they work or even use them on the child’s arm before the haircut begins.
Be prepared for things that might upset your child. Bring an extra change of clothes in case your child doesn’t want to wear the cutting cape, and apply talcum or baby powder beforehand to keep hair trimmings from sticking to their skin. Offering distractions, such as snacks, sensory bins and tablets, can also be helpful.
If your child would rather sit on your lap or even on the floor during the haircut, your stylist should be able to accommodate. While it may take longer, with stops, starts and experimenting with distractions, experienced stylists urge parents not to force their child past his or her limit.
“You should be okay with your child not getting a complete haircut the first time,” says stylist Tammy Wooldridge, a mom of two young adults with autism and the owner of Exceptional Haircare, a mobile salon that specializes in working with kids with special needs. “Forcing the child to the point of tears will only make the next haircut experience even worse, and they will always associate that experience with that stylist.”
As for Elizabeth Moss’ 3-year-old son with autism, after two years of seeing Joe White at the Boone Village Barber Shop, she says haircuts are nowhere near the struggle they once were.
“Now he actually sits in the chair and gets his haircut like it’s no big deal,” she says. “Joe is the best of both worlds because he’s good with kids with special needs, and he gives a good haircut!”
Looking for a new haircut home? These local stylists are recommended by parents of kids with sensory sensitivities.
Liz Groth, Walt’s Barber Shop
105 S. Madison Ave., Greenwood
Mike McCabe, Avon Barber Shop
8401 E. US Hwy 36 E., Avon
Danielle Schrier, Studio C Family Hair Care
115 W. Krewson St., Plainfield
Matt Stilger, Main St Barber Shop
41 W Main St, Carmel
Joe White, Boone Village Barber Shop
47 Boone Village, Zionsville
Tammy Wooldridge, Exceptional Haircare
Mobile salon specializing in working with kids with special needs