The Heartache of Haircuts – On Sensory Processing Disorder

haircutToday, I hurt my child. Yes, you read that correctly. I physically restrained him, hurt him, and made him cry. And he is only four years old.

Why would I do such a thing, you might ask. The answer might surprise you.

He needed a haircut.

Did I beat or harm him in so many of the awful ways adults choose to brutalize their children? No, of course not. I love him. Like most of you, I would gladly give my life for him.

But, today, he needed a haircut. A haircut he didn’t want — not because he is incorrigible. It’s because he’s autistic, and many children with autism cannot tolerate the experience of a haircut.

A while ago, a story made the rounds of Ashley Bays, mother of an autistic two-year-old son. She took her little boy to a salon to get a haircut. When her son began screaming and reacting to the haircut, the salon owner came out and loudly berated Ashley for her son’s disruption of her salon. In tears, the mother apologized and explained her son’s autism. The stylist had to finish the child’s haircut on the sidewalk…Continued at What to Expect.  

16 thoughts on “The Heartache of Haircuts – On Sensory Processing Disorder

  1. Heather

    Been there, won’t do it again. My son is 8, and we just wait ’til he is asleep and do the best we can. It’s not the best looking haircut, but he couldn’t care less, and there is neither trauma nor drama. As for the salon that didn’t even try to “get it,” it’s their loss of a customer.

    1. Sarah Thomas

      I thought I was the only mum who cut their sons hair while he sleeps. My boy is nearly 5 and has been diagnosed with spd.I ‘ve previously taken him to get his hair cut in salons, but the whole event was so traumatic for my son. I absolutely dread cutting his hair. It’s so hard to judge how much to cut.,I can’t ever cut the length off the back. It’s never evenly cut and looks terrible in my opinion. I’m so embarrassed for my boy… any advice

  2. Robin

    I can totally relate to this. It takes two of us to get Finn’s hair cut. One of us to hold him on our lap and the other to hold his head. Thankfully he accepts it pretty gracefully and it is not what I know it could easily be. I have a wonderful woman that does it at her barbershop and she is the only one I bring him to. No buzzer, just scissors.

  3. Dana

    I remember going from Barbershop to barbershop to see who had the quietest clippers. When my son was really small I held him tight and cut his hair with scissors. Eventually I worked my way up to bribery and now that is all a thing of the past. It will get better. I promise.

  4. Anni

    I know what will help. HANDLE therapy. You can google it. It’s a cross between occupational and physical therapy. It is not covered by most insurance, it will promise miracles, but I’ll tell you what it did accomplish: a series of tapping along specific lines along the skull, face and joints as well as certain massages helped my son cope with sensory invasions. I am now able to get his haircut done and even clip his toenails without any issues. It took my son about 6 weeks’ of daily tapping and massages to get him there.

  5. MrsC

    Oh, I remember this. We went and bought clippers because hairdressers were just not even worth considering. The first time I tried it alone and it was DISASTROUS, my son just fought and fought and fought. When he arrived home my husband told me he looked like an orphan in one of those old documentaries about Eastern Europe, and we made sure he wore a had for a couple of weeks.

    The next time we both did it – one holding him really tightly and feeding him sweets every time he opened his mouth to scream, the other buzzing over his head *super-fast*. Our neighbours must have thought we tortured our son on a regular basis – I still can’t believe they never called the police, or social services. We have done this every six weeks ever since (over a period of nearly seven years now- do the math) and today, believe it or not, he doesn’t mind the clippers, apart from when they are close to his ears. Desensitisation is a wonderful thing!

  6. Magda

    Thank you for this blog.I know exactly how you feel. When my son was little I used to “force” him and take him to hairdresser’s. It was always very painful, but as he got older he started to fight and it was virtually imopossible to cut his hair without having to restrain him. Needless to say i started to cut his hair myself while he was in the bathtub occupied with bath toys. It never looked perfect but at least i was able to wash away all the hairs falling down which seemed to be what bothered him the most. Also I never used the clippers as the sound of it drove him crazy. Then at his school one of the teacher assistants gave him a haircut. They asked if that would be ok. At first I wasn’t sure, but I know my son behaves better and resists less with other people. It happened a couple more times and he seemed better with the whole idea. In time ,he is 17 now, my skilled caregiver managed to take him to the salon. At first for just a quick trim. She always promised him something fun to do afterwards. And distracted him with her iPhone..He just had another great haircut. It does get better with time. I think the more he is exposed to the experience (and also it depends on the stylist), but he seems to accept this as part of life. He is definitely better when my caregiver takes him there, and I’m not around.

  7. Katie O

    Just had this very same experience this past Sunday.
    Husband took our 7-year old for his much overdue haircut.
    Resulting in a meltdown like we hasn’t seen in ages.
    Always, “One step forward, two steps back and to the left.”
    Your posts are so eloquently written and so perfectly reflect the experience of a special needs parent.
    I read and share your blog with others ALL the time.
    Several posts standout for me personally, but these last two hit very close to home.
    Please consider publishing your essays in book-form for my less computer savvy, older relatives. :)

  8. CarrieZ

    I gave up when my daughter was 4. She couldn’t deal with someone other than me combing/messing with her hair, much less washing it. I had tried whisking her from the tub to clothes to the salon with wet hair and that didn’t work either. I finally bought some good scissors and got creative. I have her wash her hair, then throw on something comfy. I put a stool on top of the coffee table, and park that in front of the TV. That buys me time and a still kiddo so that I can trim as needed. I’ve gotten faster in the last 6 years. I’m sure my hairstylist would be horrified if she looked at the precision of the cut, but when you consider that she’s always moving, and that her hair is usually in a ponytail or something anyway, it works. Plus, it’s free.

  9. Fuzzy Cabbage

    Thankfully we haven’t had to deal with that yet as our son’s hair has grown incredibly slow and we are trying to put off the haircut for as long as possible. I truly feel for you. It must be awful to have to resort to such measures, and there’s no telling what onlookers are thinking.

  10. fotodad

    I completely get this. D. was terrible to give haircuts to. He would cry and about the only word he could get out was “itchy” and this was between sobs through clenched teeth. He is now 13 and while he still complains some about the itchiness, it is much better than when he was little. His mom cuts his hair, and immediately afterwards, she sends him to the shower where he can get all the little hairs rinsed off. The shower afterwards helps immensely, at least for him.

  11. Yaumara Lindo

    My 2 year old daughter who has Autism has never gotten a haircut. But I am pretty sure she will not be happy the first time we do this.
    My nephew, who is now 18 and Autistic, hated haircuts. I vividly remember my brother asking me to meet him at the local Cartoon Cuts in case he needed an extra set of hands. I had no idea it was this bad and I was so young then and knew nothing about Autism. I thought he simply didn’t like haircuts and was spoiled (God, I am so sorry for being so ignorant and unfair to you Chris).The salon lady put on his favorite cartoon and the place was so fun and full of favorite kid TV characters. I was not prepared for what happened next. As soon as those clippers turned on Christopher SCREAMED and BOUNCED and KICKED! My brother held him as best he could and I tried to talk to him in order to calm him down. The salon lady was never able to give him that haircut because Christopher managed to jump off of my brother and punch the lady in the face as he ran out with me chasing him. It was so horrible and I didn’t understand him. Can’t say it enough: Autism Awareness Is So Important. With time Christopher got better and he does not seem to have any haircut issues today. It DOES get better. Thank you for your post and for helping to bring awareness. Hugs.

  12. Anne

    What a moving post and perfect reminder for everyone when witnessing unexpected behaviors to stop and think before reacting. It is heartbreaking to watch special needs kids stumble and then both child and caregiver be shamed by others. My heart goes out to you.

  13. Shandeigh

    I don’t know if they have one in your area or something similiar… but I take my son to They do a really good job and are used to screaming kids. There is a lot of sensory imput there so I find my son is distracted by the TV and cool car chair enough to get the haircut done quickly.

  14. Kathryn

    A very, very good friend of mine has a 4 y/o son with SPD, and I cut his hair (licensed cosmetologist for 6+ years). I do it in their home in hopes that he will feel more comfortable, and he is able to watch TV or music videos while I do it. It breaks my heart every time I have to cut his hair as it seems like I am inflicting the most intense pain on him, and we are certain the neighbors think we are torturing him – we try to bribe him with candy, we give him breaks, and try to take his mind off of what’s going on, and sometimes one thing works while the others don’t, but most of the time none of it works. His parents no longer hold him while I cut his hair because we thought he didn’t like being restrained (can’t blame him!), and this isn’t a problem as he is belted into a booster seat so his range of motion is still fairly limited; he’s still able to kick me, push me, punch me, but he’s 4 so it’s not like any of that hurts – my only concern is that he may grab my shears & cut himself. I’ve been cutting his hair since he was a year old, and he’s never taken to them very well, but he seems to dislike them more & more the older he gets – his parents have him in occupational therapy, so hopefully this will help him. I use scissors all over, except for around his ears & his neckline where I have to use trimmers; the trimmers don’t bother him much, but I turn them on & let him feel them to show him that they just tickle before using them to trim. After about an hour we finally finish, and he hugs me & says “Good job, buddy!”, which is adorable & makes it all worth it. Does anyone have any ideas other than candy/TV/handheld video games? Anything that has helped to ease their child?
    That being said, I have cut children twice his age that are more difficult than he is, and do not have Autism or SPD. I would generally recommend taking any child to a salon that is catered to children until they are used to haircuts. A lot of children can be a can be difficult to trim, and dealing with that is the stylist of such an establishments’ primary job. Keep in mind that there are very, very sharp scissors near your child’s head/face/ears/neck, so if a stylist tells you they need to stop the cut it’s for both the stylist’s safety, and your child’s as well. It’s nothing against you or your child, it’s that we don’t want anyone getting hurt. It is absolutely terrible & uncalled for for that salon owner to yell at anyone, and I can’t think of a situation where that would possibly be called for.
    My heart goes out to you, and I hope you are all able to find someone that is able to cut your child’s hair.

  15. my name is margie Billian . I understand. I am a hairdresser. look me up. I have been in 3 articles telling other hairdressers how to help clients like this. My son also has autism. I have been in American Salon, Modern Salon and another article. Find a h

    margie Billian . I understand. I am a hairdresser. look me up. I have been in 3 articles telling other hairdressers how to help clients like this. My son also has autism. I have been in American Salon, Modern Salon and another article. Find a hairdresser who understands. Hugs. and don’t expect a perfect haircut. Hugs

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