For many children, getting a haircut is a routine experience. For autistic children, however, a haircut may present some special challenges. The sensory overload associated with the scissors, the buzzing of clippers, water spritzing, and even the act of sitting still in a chair for an extended period can be overwhelming.  

Haircuts involve a multitude of sensory stimuli, including touch, sound, sight, and smell (such as shampoo and conditioner, along with chemical treatments being given to other salon customers). Autistic children often have heightened sensitivities to sensory stimuli, making haircuts a potentially unpleasant experience.  

A young boy getting his hair cut.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare 

Just like you would prepare a child for a new experience by explaining what's going to happen, you can do the same for haircuts. Use social stories, visuals, or even short videos to show what a typical haircut experience is like. Prepare a sensory kit with items that can help soothe your child, such as fidget toys or a favorite blanket. You may also incorporate role plays in a desensitization program. 

Choose the Right Time and Place 

Timing can be everything. Choose a period when your child is typically calm and content. Some salons offer special quiet hours for children with sensory sensitivities. Others may allow you to book appointments during less busy times.  

Communication is Key 

Speak openly with the stylist about your child’s needs and preferences. Let them know what potential triggers for your child might be and discuss if there are any alternatives. For example, if the noise of the clippers is an issue, perhaps scissors can be used instead.  

Practice Makes Perfect 

Consider creating a mock salon experience at home. Mimic the haircutting process by draping a towel over their shoulders, gently spraying water on their hair, or even just touching their head and neck the way a stylist might. The aim is to desensitize them to the sensations they will experience during the actual haircut. 

Be Present and Reassuring 

During the haircut, stay close to offer verbal reassurance or soothing touches. You know best how to calm your child; use this knowledge to make the experience as comfortable as possible for them. 

Offer Rewards and Positive Reinforcement 

After successfully navigating the haircut, offer some form of positive reinforcement. This could be verbal praise, a small treat, or time spent doing a favorite activity. This helps to associate the haircut experience with positive outcomes. 

Know When to Take a Break 

Understand that it’s okay to take breaks. If the experience is becoming too overwhelming for your child, it’s perfectly fine to pause and try again later. You can always come back another day. 

A caregiver brushing their child's hair.

Questions to Ask Before Scheduling a Haircut 

1. Is the salon experienced with special needs children? 

2. Can we visit beforehand to get accustomed to the environment? 

3. Can we bring our own sensory-friendly cape or towel? 

4. Is it possible to schedule appointments during less busy times? 

5. Can you accommodate breaks during the haircut? 

6. What products will be used, in case of skin sensitivities? 

Remember, the goal is not just to get the haircut done, but to do so in a manner that makes your child feel secure and respected. With proper preparation and the right approach, haircuts can become a far less daunting task for both you and your child. The key is to be patient, flexible, and aware of your child’s unique needs and how best to meet them.