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A parent’s guide to giving a sensory friendly haircut at home

Haircuts for autistic child: Tips for at-home haircuts

Updated: August 11, 2023 · 7 Minute Read

Jeryn Cambrah

Written by:

Jeryn Cambrah

Highlights

  • Learn how to give sensory and autism friendly haircuts in 6 steps!
  • Explain everything as you're doing it, and involve them in the process, as much as is safe for them.
  • Electric buzzers can sound scary. Play the sound on your phone and pretend to buzz their hair so that this feels more like playing than a chore.
  • Keep their favorite toys and snacks nearby so that the experience feels like something they can look forward to!

Haircuts for autistic children can be a very difficult experience. If you're like me, you can't ever imagine your kid stepping foot in a salon or barbershop, let alone sitting still for longer than 30 seconds to get a haircut.

 

My son (age 4, level 3, non-verbal) has gorgeous, straight, blonde hair. For the longest time (until he was 3.5) we let his hair stay really long (to his shoulders) and only trimmed it slightly a few times a year with a pair of hair-cutting scissors (while he was distracted by something else). 

 

Unfortunately, he experienced some trauma when he was younger in which his biological mom held him down and shaved his head. For that reason, and of course, due to his autism, we have avoided barbershops, salons, and the dreaded noisy hair clippers.

 

When he started going to ABA therapy last year, his hair (which is prone to knotting horribly) got out of control. He became more and more sensitive to having his hair brushed. Our nightly routine consisted of a sometimes hour and a half long bath where I had to liberally condition and carefully comb through his knotted mane. It was a painful experience for both of us which often led to him hitting himself and/or crying.

 

Needless to say, it was time for the hair to go. We weren't sure if it would upset him to lose his long locks, but his safety and health were more important. 

 

Here's how I cut my autistic child's hair at home and avoid a potentially chaotic trip to the barbershop:

 

 

Step 1: Visual Preparation

As with any new activity, you'll want to prep your child first with pictures, videos, etc. 

 

I did this by showing him a video of a child similar in appearance, with similar hair, getting their hair cut on YouTube. He watched for a little while (as long as his attention span could muster) and I explained that the boy was getting his haircut and that that's what we were going to be doing.

 

I should also mention that beforehand, probably early that morning or maybe the day before, I had been watching videos on YouTube of *how* to cut a child's hair. I have been cutting my own for years but I didn't know how to give him a proper haircut. I found a 10ish minute video that walked me through the whole thing in real-time, and also gave suggestions for which guards to use on the clippers to achieve the look I was going for.

 

Step 2: Auditory Preparation

A little while later, I pulled up the sound of hair clippers and played it for him on my phone. When he became intrigued and comfortable with the sound, I pretended to "buzz" his hair with the clippers. (This was a fantastic tip from his BCBA.)

 

At first, he was a little apprehensive, but he adjusted beautifully and was eager to hold the "clippers" and "buzz" my hair. I let him pretend to cut my hair, too, so it felt more like playing and less like a chore.

 

Step 3: Set Up

After a rest from that, I got out the clippers and plugged them in, then set up our "salon". I got his favorite candy (Hersey's Chocolate Kisses), a drink, his tablet, a chair, the scissors, a towel, a comb/brush, and anything else I thought I might need during the process. 

 

I showed him everything I was doing as I was doing it. This is super important.

 

You want to select your child's favorite things —favorite fidget toy, favorite snack, a favorite treat, favorite everything. This makes the haircut a positive experience, something they can look forward to, rather than dread. Surrounding them with their favorite stuff makes them feel like it's a treat!

 

I set all of this up on the table in the dining room, then called him over. But he didn't want to stay there, so we moved to the couch.

 

(Ultimately, wherever your child is most comfortable will be where you want to set up. That could be in their bed, the bathtub, the couch, the dining room, outside...wherever they will be most calm and feel comfortable.)

 

Step 4: The Actual Haircut

Once we were all set up and comfy, I began by "pretending" to cut his hair, just so he could get a feel for it. He was curious and wanted to touch everything, of course, so we did a bit of pretending.

 

Next, I began the actual haircut by doing one pass with the buzzers. In retrospect, this was a mistake, but he thought it was funny to watch his hair fall, so it was a recovered fumble. I quickly learned that I should first trim the bulk of his length with the shears, then go back with the buzzer, so that's what we did.

 

As I was removing the bulk of his length, I worked in sections and he curiously played with the hair and watched as it fell down. It was a huge mess, but hey! It's just hair. Hair can be cleaned up, so don't worry.

 

I started with the back of his head (since he was facing away from me and looking at his tablet), then I did each side, leaving the front part of his hair/bangs alone for now. Once I removed the bulk of the length, I went back in with the buzzers and an appropriate guard length and did a pass around his whole head. When I got to the top of his head, I pulled his bangs and front length upward (as instructed by the cosmetologist on YouTube) and began trimming that in sections on a diagonal.

 

I had a certain amount of Kisses that I kept in front of him and available to him (along with his drink) during the haircut so he could eat one or take a drink whenever he wanted. Throughout the process, whenever I’d notice him getting antsy, we’d take a short break. (In our case, these breaks lasted probably less than a minute, because he is easily side-tracked.)

 

Although he wiggled around a lot, he was predominantly invested in his tablet and chocolate and just let me do my thing. He became the most restless toward the very end, as we'd been sitting there for a while.

 

But, after a handful of Hershey's Kisses and several breaks later, he had a totally cool new haircut!

 

Step 5: The Aftermath

After the haircut was done, we headed to the bathroom so he could look at himself in the mirror. He was totally loving his new 'do! He watched me do the clean-up of sweeping the hair and putting things back.

 

I let him play with the floor hair, sort of to "grieve" the loss and get that out of his system. Kids are naturally going to want to inspect something that was on their body but is no longer there.

 

In the bathroom, we dusted off a lot of the hair all over him and got him in the bath. While he was relaxing in the bath, I was able to trim up any stray hairs or janky bits that I missed and try to even it all out. The revelation for both of us that his hair didn't take 15 minutes to wash anymore was amazing. He was so excited!

 

After his bath, he enjoyed looking at himself more and playing with his hair in the mirror. Once he got dressed, we were ready to show Yoma (grandma) his new look. He was very pleased with himself and loved looking at himself every chance he got!

 

Step 6: Celebrate!

Praise the heck out of your child. Tell them what a great job they did! However your family celebrates their wins — do that. For us, that means applause, compliments, cuddles, hugs, high fives, etc.

 

In my experience, this can actually be a bonding moment for you and your child. Positive reinforcement (kids love praise, especially my kid) is so important. You really want to drive home what a wonderful job they did and how proud you are of them. This not only instills confidence that they can do hard things, but again, makes "haircut time" a positive experience they will be able to tolerate better in the future.

 

(Somewhat) Pro Tips:

  1. This haircut doesn't have to be perfect. Don't worry about straight lines or even length. 
  2. Don't stress about whether they're sitting straight or stimming. Go slowly, at their pace. Take lots of breaks as needed. If you're relaxed, they will be relaxed too!
  3. Allow them (and yourself) to be as comfortable as possible.
  4. Take off a little at a time. You can always remove hair but you can't add it back! If you have to complete the cut in sessions, that's okay. You don't have to get it all done in one go.
  5. Explain everything as you're doing it, and involve them in the process, as much as is safe for them.

 

I hope this guide will help you if you're planning to cut your child's hair yourself. Here's a before and after shot because who doesn't love them:

 

 

If after reading this guide you still don't feel comfortable cutting your child hair at home, check out our checklist for a sensory free haircut. You can use this to find an autism-friendly barber or hairstylist, or find additional tips to use at home!

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