My son has autism and significant sensory issues. My son also loves going to the barber. Usually, I have to drag him out of there, literally. Yes, it can happen!
But, if I’m being honest, it wasn’t always that way. This is an actual video from earlier this year. He is so happy at the barber that he’s bouncing in his seat to the music. The only reason my leg is across him is that it wasn’t a great seizure day and I didn’t want him to fall off the chair.
When the kids were little, we used clippers at home. We just gave them buzz cuts because they were small. And boys.
And for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t.
I don’t remember if it was sudden or gradual. I just remember one day, it was basically a WWE wrestling match with me, my husband, and our autistic child.
I decided we weren’t doing that anymore so I took him to a place to get his haircut. Just one of those chains in a shopping center. I do remember that time, it was gradual. He was fine for the first visit or two, but then it gradually became more uncomfortable for him.
I was at a loss for what to do. So, I went to another chain and went in and asked. “Do you have experience giving haircuts to autistic children?”
That person assured me that she could do it.
She couldn’t. It was so bad, and he was in so much distress, I decided that we could not continue. The problem was, his hair was uneven. Like, noticeably uneven.
I remember taking him home, bathing him to get the hair off, and then eating dinner. That was the first time my husband had noticed his hair. As if I was unaware and not already completely stressed out about this, my husband pointed out his uneven haircut to me.
I don’t remember my exact reply, but it was something along the lines of “No shit, you think I can’t see it?”
Finding an Autism Barber
I should add that Kevin was not yet in school. He wasn’t 3 yet. So while his hair was odd and awkward, we didn’t necessarily have to go out in public with him looking like that.
The next day, I took him to the barbershop around the corner from my house. It literally is 0.2 miles from my home but I had never been there.
I explained to him what had happened and K’s history of haircuts.
He (Eddie) assured me that he could do this. Maybe not complete it today, but it would eventually get done. I trusted him.
Now that we’ve been going there for years, I can see what makes Eddie different and why it works. Eddie is the “go-to” barber around our area and parents come from miles around to get haircuts for their autistic children.
Autism Friendly Barbers
Lots of places advertise that they are autism-friendly or sensory-friendly for haircuts. While they are well intended, I find that many of them miss the mark.
They may provide some accommodations, such as:
- Low lighting
- no or low-volume music/sound
- sensory toys as a distraction
- kid-friendly things like TVs, leap pads, iPads
But some of you know, there’s no iPad app on the planet that is going to distract my kid if he doesn’t want a sensory experience like a haircut. It takes waaaayyyyy more than that.
Finding a Barber for Autism
As I say in a lot of my articles, there is no quick fix to this. If your child has been traumatized by barbers or haircuts, it’s going to take time to undo this.
In this age of instant everything, we often get impatient if we cannot find a fast solution.
But, finding a good barber will take time.
Barber Skills for Autistic Kids
Eddie is my age and has been a barber for a long time. He also has a wide range of experience. He goes into nursing homes and prisons to give haircuts.
Experience matters, but so does his mindset. His “everyone is equal” and “everyone deserves a good haircut” speak to his mindset and attitude toward serving autistic people.
Lots of people say they want to help our kids. But one hit or one incident of spitting often changes their mind.
Since finding this gem many years ago, I now know that many disabled people go to him for haircuts. And, he hired two disabled men to work PT in the shop doing odd jobs like sweeping up hair and stuff.
There are people out there who walk the walk when it comes to the disability community, sometimes they’re just harder to find.
If you cannot find one, you have to find a willing participant and “make” one. Yes, really.
Barber Shop Accommodations for Autism and Sensory Needs
You can try any or all of these ideas with your child. Finding a barber for your autistic child is just as important as finding a good dentist for autism.
- Ask LOTS of questions before you take your child. What is their experience with autistic children? And it needs to be more than “Yeah, my cousin’s kid has autism.” Go with your gut. If this person isn’t currently experienced, can they learn, and are they willing to learn?
- What sensory accommodations do they provide? Look for answers that speak to doing the actual haircut. Not just things like “low lighting and low sound” environment.
- Be flexible and think outside the box. Kevin often wears this nylon windbreaker instead of a traditional barber or haircut cape. Sometimes he doesn’t want to sit in the barber chair, so Eddie cuts his hair in the waiting area.
- Be patient. My non-disabled child can get a haircut in 10-30 minutes. Kevin takes at least an hour and sometimes it is over multiple visits.
- Pay accordingly. Barbers usually get paid by the haircut and the efficient ones fit as many clients in an hour as they can. If my son takes 60-90 minutes, I expect to pay more as I am taking up more of his time. Tip well.
- Adjust your expectations and priorities. Kevin bounces while getting his hair cut. He also keeps his hands over his ears. This may mean that the cut around his ears isn’t as clean or sharp as I’d like, or that I have to trim it up while he’s sleeping. His haircut may not always be perfect, but it’s enjoyable for him. And most importantly, he’s not traumatized by it as many autistic kids are. Not traumatizing him and his comfort are higher priorities for me than a perfect haircut.
- Consider visiting just to sit and visit, even when not getting a haircut. You know your child best if this will work for them or not. For us, it wouldn’t work as Kevin likely would not want to leave until he got a haircut. Other kids may not want to return to the shop if they are getting a haircut. But for some, if they see a bunch of happy people, chatting, socializing, and getting haircuts, it may bring them comfort and a level of what to expect. If they’ve only ever gone to a barber to get a haircut and it was distressing to them, they need to be able to have positive experiences in that location too.
- Try social stories or other things that work for your child. You may want to try things like a small toy that hums or buzzes and have him practice putting it on his head.
- If you find someone you like, make sure they have your contact information in the event that they move to another shop.
- Eddie follows Kevin’s lead while challenging him to accept more. If that makes sense. If Kevin wants to sit leaning a certain way, Eddie cuts the other side of his head. He listens to Kevin, even if Kevin is non-speaking.