I hurt my child. Yes, you read that correctly. I physically restrained him with my arms wrapped around him and made him cry. And he was only 3 years old.
Why would I do such a thing, you might ask? The answer might surprise you.
He needed a haircut.
Now this does not mean I abused him like some awful parents could do. I love him. Like most of you, I would gladly give my life for him.
But, late last summer, he needed a haircut. A haircut he didn’t want — It’s because he’s autistic, and many children with autism cannot tolerate the experience of a haircut.
So what is so terrible about a haircut? Well, often times children with Autism can also experience sensory difficulties. This can frequently be overlooked as a possible cause of behavior, but also needs to be considered when going to the hairdressers.
Cody also experienced difficulties with his touch system. Touch can be very painful for someone with an ASD which can make having a haircut very difficult. His thing is he did not like strangers quickly approaching him with a cape that was clearly not Batman’s cape and placing it tightly around his neck, brushing his hair, and the feel of the scissors or vibration of the hair clippers made him very uncomfortable.
Cody also has a high sensitivity to some noises especially when he is not familiar with the sound. Going to a salon you have multiple sounds of hairdryers, hair clippers and background noise and when all combined together in a strange place, it can be very distressing.
Last summer on a Sunday afternoon we decided as a family that we would go get Cody’s haircut. The 3 times we went for haircuts before progressively got harder and harder and unmanageable for just me to go. I recruited Brad and Cameron to come along! We were prepared to take turns pulling all kinds of tricks out of the hat to help Cody overcome an experience that is so tough for him. After an hour of pure hell, Brad and Cameron ended up walking out of the salon in tears and needless to say we have not been back for a haircut since until today.
So over the last several months, I taught myself how to cut hair. Of course after having a glass of wine to get my nerves up to doing it in fear I would really mess things up. But, after months passed all the trimmings I was doing caught up to us and left Cody with some pretty bad uneven hair….
Brad and I started thinking about the environment when Cody was there last summer at the salon. We realized how important it is to look at the environment of the salon and to break down the process of what went wrong when Cody was sitting in my lap inside the red fire truck, yes this was a children’s salon. We then realized that the environment was a sensory overload and the touching and sounds of the clippers are what causes distress for Cody.
So what do we do?
Out first thoughts were we would try to make an appointment at the end of the day so Cody would be the only one in there and find someone who works with children with sensory difficulties. I did call but did not feel the confidence I needed to make the appointment. I also reached out to my support group and they had a great referral but that would mean I would need to drive 30 miles and after my long commutes over the last year that was not happening!
Our next steps we enrolled our ABA therapists with what this experience was like when he went to get his haircut. They started to incorporate in their programs playing with Cody’s hair to help de-sensitize that feeling. Brad then suggested for me to call my hairdresser to see if she would do a home visit. This would make Cody more comfortable and we could ease into the process of hair cutting gradually. Some people may say that we need to not enable these behaviors and start breaking him into unfamiliar territory and I agree to some point. But today this is not a battle high on our list as we are focusing on other goals.
Today at 11 am Cody got a haircut and guess what? I did not hurt my child. Yes, you read that correctly. Was he agitated? Of course! He was pissed at the hairdresser sneaking around his neck and playing with his hair but he had no tears! I contribute this to really understanding his environment and knowing what makes him uncomfortable, his 25 plus hours of ABA therapy and a hairdresser that understands and listens to the parents. She was amazing today and no words can thank her for what she had done for us.
So, the next time a crying child upsets your lunch date, manicure, or reading time in a waiting room, please — if nothing else — be kind. Yes, you might be correct that this could be just bad parenting but weigh that with the other possibilities of what might be happening in that family. For not every struggle is evident. Sometimes we just don’t know what battles families might be fighting.