For people on the autism spectrum, a visit to the hairdressers can be a very difficult experience. Here we explain why someone may become distressed when having a haircut, and also suggest some strategies to help with these situations.

Sensory matters

For an autistic person, any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. This can affect behaviour. It is important to look at the environment of the hairdressers and to break down the process of having a haircut to gain better insight into why this experience may cause distress.

Some people experience difficulties with their touch system. Touch can be very painful for an autistic person which can make having a haircut very difficult. Myles et al (2000) provide suggestions as to why a child may not like having a haircut. Someone may not like a hairdresser brushing and washing their hair, and the feel of the scissors or vibration of the hair clippers may be very uncomfortable. When having a haircut, a towel or drape is usually placed around the shoulders and neck which again may aggravate. The hairdresser or barber will also need to stand near the individual, and may brush against them, which may be distressing.

It can be uncomfortable for someone to tilt their hair back or forward when having their haircut. This could particularly be an issue when having to tilt the head back to have the hair washed. The spray of the water may also be quite annoying (Myles et al 2000).

If someone is sensitive to noise, then this needs to be considered when going to the hairdressers. It can be a noisy experience with the sound of hairdryers, hair clippers and background noise. Most hairdressers tend to have powerful lighting and the bright lights may reflect from the mirrors causing discomfort.  Some people may also find the strong smell of hair products very unpleasant. 

Other problems

If it is the person's first visit to the hairdressers, then perhaps not knowing what to expect may distress them. If there has been no preparation for what is to be expected at the hairdressers, then the sight of an unknown person holding a pair of scissors near their head can be very frightening.

Sometimes there may be a particular word which triggers a negative reaction. For example the word 'haircut' may have to be replaced with 'trimming' or 'shortening the hair'.

There may also be the problem of the individual not understanding the reason why they should have their hair cut, and may not actually want their hair to be shorter.

Possible solutions

There are a number of ways in which you can help an autistic person prepare for the experience of having a haircut.

  • Arrange for them to watch another person having their haircut so they have an insight into what to expect. If possible, it could help to make a video, perhaps of a sibling, going to the same hairdressers. This could include videoing the haircut and if you felt appropriate, the child getting a reward afterwards.
  • Some younger children may benefit from play-acting, pretending to cut the hair of a doll. It would be important to make this is as real as possible, and emphasising the sensory aspects that are a part of the process (Myles et al 2000). You could also try use child-friendly scissors with your child, to cut up paper at home. This may help them become familiar with the use of scissors and reduce any anxiety which is caused by the sight of scissors. 
  • Social Stories™ can help autistic people to develop a greater social understanding. These can be an extremely useful resource to help explain why we have our hair cut, and about the process of having a haircut.
  • There are other ways in which using visual support can also be useful. Rather than surprising the person about when the haircut is happening, it may be useful to use a haircut symbol on a calendar, so that they are aware of when it will be taking place. You can also use a visual timeline to help prepare the person. It may help to choose a hair appointment near to the beginning or end of the day when it is likely to be quieter. Inform the hairdressers that the person may become very anxious if having to wait for their appointment. This will hopefully make the hairdresser aware of the need to be prompt. If you have booked an appointment, then it would be helpful to use a visual timetable for the day with perhaps a preferred activity after the haircut.
  • It may be easier for a hairdresser to come to the person's home to cut their hair. This would eradicate the issue of a new environment.
  • If you choose to have the haircut at home, you may need to ensure that the there is a mirror available so that the person is aware of what is happening, whilst the hairdresser is standing behind them. Any unexpected touch (if not warned or if the person cannot see when they are being touched) may cause further anxiety.
  • Whether you choose a haircut at home or at the hairdressers, it may be useful to give the person cutting the hair some information about autism prior to the haircut. Also talk to them specifically about the person and about expected reactions, and don't hesitate to provide strategies and suggestions that may make the experience easier.
  • If the person is very sensitive to strong smells and is to have their hair washed at the hairdressers, then it would be advisable to take unscented shampoo or the shampoo that he/she is used to from home. If the process of having the hair washed may be too much added pressure, then perhaps it would be more suitable to ask the hairdresser for a dry cut, or just dampening the hair with a water spray.  The person may like to get involved with their cut, by perhaps spraying the water themselves (Myles et al, 2000). If the person resists having their hair brushed, then encouraging them to brush their own hair may help them get more used to the experience of touch to their head when having their haircut.
  • The autistic person may like to know how long the haircut is going to last.  By using a timer, you could visually show when the haircut starts and finishes. It would be useful to set the timer for slightly longer than anticipated, to prevent the timer ending when the haircut has yet to be finished.
  • Some parents of young children have found that the haircut is made easier by hugging them in their lap. This can provide gentle pressure which may have a calming effect for the child and reduce their anxiety, whilst having their hair cut.
  • A simple flip chart or tick chart could be used whilst having the haircut. A series of simple pictures can be used in sequence to warn the person of what is happening next. This can be used in conjunction with verbal warnings from the hairdresser to say what they will be doing next. It is important that the hairdresser provides verbal instructions of the process, so as not to alarm the person when his head is being touched or the chair is being raised.  It is also important that when talking to the person, the hairdresser is made aware of the need to keep their language clear and simple.
  • If the sound or feel of the clippers causes too much distress, then it would be advisable to use scissors instead. If they are to be used, then warning the person when it will be turned on is crucial, and perhaps the person could get used to the vibration of the clippers when the barber is holding them. 
  • Providing the person with earphones and perhaps a personal stereo with their favourite music may help to keep them calm. This can help to shut out background noise which may annoy them. If this is used then visual prompts must be clear to indicate when the hairdresser is going to touch the person. A number of hairdressers will have magazines, books or toys to entertain the person while having their haircut, however it may be more beneficial to bring favourite books or toys from home, even a hand-held computer game may offer valuable distraction. An alternative would be for the person to have a stress ball or Koosh ball to hold and manipulate whilst having their hair cut (Myles et al 2000). 
  • Once the hair has been cut, the person may find it irritating if there is stray hair on their skin. It may be useful to bring a change of clothes, so that hair won't be stuck to the top they are wearing. 

Some parents or carers may have found that all of the above have been tried before and not helped a situation. In this situation they have had to resort to cutting the person's hair whilst they are sleeping as best they can.

Some local support groups may have details of hairdressers who have been recommended to them as being autism-friendly via other parents. For details of local support groups visit the NAS Autism Services Directory

 

Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/hairdressers

Last reviewed: 14 November 2017