By Pallavi Shankar
Parents with small children know how herculean a task it is to take your little boy or girl to the salon for a haircut. The situation is only trickier when the child in question has autism, and when you are a single mother with no companion around to lend a helping hand (or ear). My first such attempt with my six-year-old son Aariv ended in a disaster so much so that I didn’t have the guts to try it for another couple of years. I am hoping the hairdresser is not scarred for life. I had to tell him that it’s not his fault, nor Aariv’s, nor mine.
There is very little awareness in India about ASD (autism spectrum disorder) – a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction and communication and repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour. So people in stores, salons and other public places usually have little or no idea about how to react to kids on the spectrum. I don’t blame them as popular mass media hardly focuses on these problems unlike in the first world – yes, I will say so even if it not the most politically correct thing to say; the facilities there are way better and people more aware. National TV and newspapers in the West do quite a bit to create awareness for health conditions that are not typically mainstream.
Coming back to the topic of haircuts, it’s a tough job because spectrum kids have many sensory issues that magnifies pain in their mind. They are not playacting. It’s real – the pokey hair that falls on the nape of our neck and mildly irritates us affects them 10 times more and this usually leads to meltdowns. Plus, autistic kids are skeptical and sensitive about anything they don’t clearly understand.
Things get better as the child grows up but there are no short-cuts and preparation is the only way out. There are three things needed to make haircut easier for these kids – planning, planning and planning. I tried the following tips to make Aariv’s first (real) haircut as hassle-free as possible and tasted success. Mission Impossible is possible!
Brush up: Occupational therapists (OT) will tell you how brushing your child’s hair with a special sensory brush (you can order online) helps in de-sensitising the crown of the child. Check with the OT therapist on how to get the process right and do that every day for five minutes.
Show haircut videos: Log onto YouTube and show videos of fun haircuts a week in advance before the haircut appointment day. Do this every single day to prepare your child mentally for the ‘big snip’.
Choose a friendly salon: Make sure you choose a friendly hairdresser for the job. Meet him or her and explain all the details about your child’s condition and his challenges. An impatient person will find it hard to manage a hyperactive and scared child. Also, the salon staff should be kept in the loop so that they are able to inform other clients who may not like it if a child screams and cries.
Take along a favourite toy: It is always a good idea to carry your child’s favourite toy (car or gadget or a soft toy) to the salon because that may help in distracting him from the process of the haircut.
Make him/her sit in your lap and guard the eyes: To make the child feel comfortable, make him sit in your lap while the hairdresser chops off his unruly locks (they usually are so because hurried haircuts at home are far from neat). Put your arms around him and hold his head tight to make the job easier and this way you can guard his face and eyes if he moves or jumps without any warning. And carry a fresh pair of clothes for him to change after the haircut is over because prickly bits of hair can aggravate your child’s sensory problems.
End the haircut with a reward: Once done, pat your kiddo’s back and gift him his favourite food – ice cream, chocolate, burger – anything he is really fond of. Say you are proud that he was patient – a “well done” compliment along with a hug and kiss go a long way in assuring the child that he will be appreciated in both tangible and non-tangible ways if he cooperates.
Read more about Pallavi and Aariv’s journey on her blog autismadapted.wordpress.com.