Kids and adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Down syndrome, and other intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) are often uncomfortable—and therefore uncooperative—when it’s time to get their hair cut. The experience, which involves a number of potential triggers for people with sensory issues, can even cause quite a bit of anxiety and fear.
Sitting still, having someone lurking behind them, having a towel on the back of the neck, wearing the cape, having their head repositioned, the feel of the comb or scissors, the sound of the clippers, and other aspects of a haircut can all upset someone with sensory issues.
But, at some point, everyone needs a haircut. Here we’ve compiled some haircut tips for parents of children with IDDs to help everyone get through the process as well as possible. There are some for before, during, and after the cut.
Tips to Make Haircuts Easier for Kids with IDDs
- Try referring to a haircut as “getting a trim,” “getting your hair done,” or something else that doesn’t use the word “cut.” This word can cause anxiety in some children, as can the thought of having scissors used on them (especially since we teach that scissors can be dangerous).
- Have pretend haircuts at home as part of your play; give them and receive them. Fingers or tongs make good make-believe scissors.
- Describe the process of getting a haircut. Read a children’s book about it. Watch videos of kids getting their hair cut.
- Take your son or daughter to watch another family member get their hair cut.
- Arrange for your child to meet the hairdresser ahead of time. Explain your child’s relevant sensory issues.
- Schedule your kid’s haircut at a time of day when she or he tends to be calmest and in a good mood. Make sure the appointment won’t delay a regularly scheduled meal, nap, or other activity.
- Schedule for a time when the salon isn’t too busy as well, if possible and it coincides with the above.
- Go through one of your calming routines immediately prior to the appointment.
- Stick to simple, relatively quick cuts.
- If your child will wear a zip-up or button-up second top layer, put one on so it can be removed along with all the little hairs afterwards.
- Bring along a weighted calming blanket, lap pad, or similar item if your child uses one.
- Perform a calming neck or scalp massage right beforehand.
- Have your child sit in your lap facing you if that will help and the hairdresser agrees to it.
- Encourage your child to use established calming techniques such as deep breathing, repeating a phrase, using a fidget toy, hand squeezes, etc. during the haircut.
- Use earplugs or cover your child’s ears if the sound of scissors or clippers is a trigger.
- Let your child bring a toy, book, or mobile device that can be used while sitting still. You might let them bring a snack, too.
- Give your kid a reward afterwards to positively reinforce getting a haircut.
- Try to use the same salon and the same hairdresser every time to foster familiarity.