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The Cutting of Hair

  • Posted on March 10, 2014 at 10:00 AM

When we first learned about autism and sensory integration disorder, we learned (among many other things) why haircuts seemed so traumatic for the boys. Simply put, they seemed traumatic because they were traumatic.

I remember how the boys would writhe under the scissors or the buzzer (an electric hair clipper). It used to be that I would sit down and hold one of the boys on my lap, while my mom cut their hair as quickly as possible. We’d all get covered in hair, the child would cry, and it would end with us in a breathless, exhausted tumble of remonstration, remorse, and reconciliation.

Once we understood that, yes, they acted like haircuts hurt because, to them, it did! When we understood the impact of sensory integration disorder and ineffective communication skills, we changed how we did things. Mainly, we performed haircuts in short bursts and separated each burst of haircutting with intense sensory regulation strategies. The result was a little less trauma, but otherwise the same. As the boys grew older and stronger, it seemed—at first—that the only thing that really changed is that Mark was the one to get covered in hair instead of me.

Then, something miraculous happened. It started with Willy. You see, he started becoming adept at self-regulation. He gained more self-control. So, while he still put off haircuts as long as possible and continues to dislike haircuts, he became able to endure them to the point that he could sit for them himself, he could tell us when he needed a break, he could regain his own self-control, and could tell us when he was ready to come back.

Alex’s journey is this regard was a little less straightforward and isn’t as progressed, but he can also sit for haircuts by himself. He’ll let my mom know when he’s had enough. He’ll come back when he can tolerate more. He can self-direct his participation. And they can both tolerate the buzzer!

In Ben’s case, the story is a bit different. Becky, Ben’s therapist, took over the responsibility of cutting Ben’s hair. She volunteered herself and has kept it up over the years. The results are satisfactory and we trust Becky completely, so we’ve let her choose when to cut Ben’s hair, how to cut his hair, etc. So, she manages the entirety of the project. Ben still cannot tolerate the buzzer, but seeing as Becky does it all by herself—controlling the environment in which the hair is cut is one of her strategies—Ben, too, must be doing better.

When the boys were little, I despaired of ever reaching this point. I know there are parents out there who are in the midst of that despair. But things do get better. Hang in there!