Being the parent of an autistic kid can pose many challenges. A lot of them are somewhat known but few people give much thought to how hard even simple everyday activities can be for an autistic person.
Take going to the barber, for example. A lot of barbers recognize what a nightmare getting a haircut is for an autist.
“Autistic children (can) often find having their hair cut extremely distressing because of sensory challenges associated with the condition. This means that when (they) are having their hair cut, the feeling of hands running through the hair landing on the face or body and the noise of scissors can cause distress.” – says Meleri Thomas of the National Autistic Society in the UK. (1)
Why is that so? According to the UK National Health Service, there are several main types of behavior autistic kids display in stressful situations (2):
- “reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else”
- “not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own space”
- “preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to this routine”
All of these, as well as other standard autistic reactions become huge problems during a standard 15-20 minute visit to the hairdresser or the barber. What’s more, there’s also an inherent risk involved in getting your hair cut as there are sharp scissors constantly snapping near the child’s face – even the simplest move or jump out of stress can accidentally cause serious harm.
Fortunately, some barbers have started to not only recognize the issue but act on it as well.
One such barber is Donncha O’Connell who shares an interesting story.
“We do have a few kids with special needs coming in. You take your time. (I) find that if you’re relaxed around them then they generally don’t have an issue.”
Donncha has had quite a bit of experience with autistic kids. One such example is the 16-year-old Ewan O’Dwyer who insists on getting his hair cut by Donncha O’Connell in the back of their family car. This practice started when Donncha first noticed the child was restless in his barber shop and allowed Ewan to calm down and decide how he wants his hair cut – the young Ewan just got up and went to his car where he felt safe.
“Evan for the last 14 years has gone back to the same place. I just found there was something about Donncha. He’s so laidback. He’s so good,” Evan’s mother, Deirdre says about the situation.
Donncha O’Connell also seems very much fine with the situation: “I’ve never cut anyone’s hair in the back of the car. (It’s) not a huge deal. Obviously, it’s a big thing for Deirdre. You do what you have to do. Evan can decide where and when he wants to get his hair done, but we go with it.”
There are other such examples popping up in the UK too. James Williams, a barber in Wales, UK also advocates for more understanding toward autism by barbers and hairdressers.
“Some hairdressers refuse to cut the hair of autistic children. That’s because they will scream and respond badly, but I’m trying to get the message out there that they shouldn’t be turned away.” He says “One of the biggest arguments I have with other hairdressers is when they make someone with autism sit in a chair to have their hair cut.”
Mr. Williams has had a lot of practice cutting the hair of autistic children – he’s done it on a windowstill, while lying on the floor or sitting on a desk, as well as in a car. When asked how he manages to work with autistic children, James simply says “I try to pick up on the child’s emotions.” He also shares that he plans to create a map of hairdressers where autistic children “are actively welcome” and publish it online.
Hopefully, this map will become available soon and the practice of working more thoughtfully with autistic kids will spread even further.