For children with autism, a trip to the hair salon is sometimes difficult.
The buzzing of clippers, tight collars on stiff robes, and unfamiliar odors can initially upset any child, but for a child with sensory processing disorders, a simple haircut may result in a painful experience that does not improve with repeated exposure.
Educator, mom, and hairstylist-in-training Jennifer Harshman’s ideas for better haircuts for children with special needs align with recent research on sensory processing disorders.
Anxiety in Autism Caused by Two or More Stimuli Presented at Once
Dr. Ted Hutman of UCLA’s Semel Institute presented that research at the International Meeting for Autism Research in May 2014. His team looked at the resting brain activity of children with autism and children with normally functioning brains.
They then exposed children to mildly upsetting stimuli (traffic noises, scratchy fabrics, etc.) and recorded the changes in their brain activity.
The brain activity of children with and without autism were indistinguishable at rest and when presented with a single stimuli. However, when the researchers presented two or more stimuli at once, only the brains of children with autism showed over-activity in the amygdala and the sensory cortex.
Furthermore, children with normal sensory processing showed no brain reaction when the researchers presented the set of stimuli a second time, meaning that they habituated quickly to the sensations. Children with autism showed no habituation even after the fourth presentation of the stimuli.
Since the amygdala and sensory cortex two are responsible for the interpretation of stimuli – evaluating how much of a threat a new sensation might be – the study shows that children with autism over-estimate the amount of threat these new sensations imply, causing acute anxiety.
This anxiety often manifests as stimming, or self-stimulation – the hand flapping, head banging, or repetitive verbal ticks stereotypical of autism.
Dr. Hutman recommends that parents reduce the sensory load as much as possible for children with sensory processing difficulties. If a child must face something new, then the parents should ensure that everything else (clothing, lighting, sounds) is comfortable and familiar.
Hair Salons Present Challenging New Sensations for Children with Autism
Jennifer Harshman, the mother of three children with special needs, experienced this sensory over-reaction first hand when she took her oldest son for his first haircut. It never occurred to her to worry about a simple trip to the salon, but as soon as the cut hair touched his neck, her son “started screaming as if needles were poking his skin.”
His stimming behaviors frightened his parents and kept them out of the salon.
Over the years, Harshman has developed specialized techniques for comfortably cutting her own children’s hair, and is currently working toward a license to bring salon hair-styling to families with special needs.
In alignment with Hutman’s research, Harshman’s techniques make the haircutting experience as comfortable – and stimuli-free – as possible. For her son, she kept the lights dimmed, used shears to avoid the humming vibration of clippers, and dusted his neck with powder to keep the hair from sticking to his neck.
Parents Can Make Hair Salons a More Positive Experience
For parents who are not lucky enough to have a hairstylist like Harshman, who handles special needs haircuts, she offers the following tips:
- Speak with the stylist before scheduling an appointment. Ask if it’s a good time to talk for a few minutes or when you should call back.
- Explain your child’s needs and anything you think might be helpful. Special accommodations might involve turning the lights down low or scheduling your trip for a time when there are no chemicals being used as noxious smells can trigger meltdowns.
- If you get the feeling that the stylist isn’t going to find a way to accommodate you, thank the stylist and call another. Don’t traumatize your child and frustrate the stylist and yourself by scheduling a haircut there.
- Persist until you find a stylist who is willing to do what it takes to help your child have the best experience possible.
- Prepare your child mentally for the upcoming trip to the salon. Talk casually about it. Look at pictures together and discuss what it’s like to get a haircut at a salon.
- Prepare your child physically for the visit. If you have a cape or towel, drape it around your child’s shoulders so she will feel acquainted with the feeling of being there. Play with your child’s hair, combing and lifting it as a professional would in the salon. If you have a stool or chair that rotates, have your child sit in it while you do these things, and gently move the chair from time to time, just as a stylist would do.
- When in the salon, ask for what your child seems to need at the time, and do what you can to help him stay calm.
Low-Stress Haircuts for Autistic Kids
Harshman recommends starting with the least amount of intervention needed and then adding more accommodations as necessary. With a little advance preparation and planning, parents and professional hairstylists can make haircuts a much less stressful situation for both children with autism and their parents.