“Autistic children (can) often find having their hair cut extremely distressing because of sensory challenges associated with the condition. This means that when (they) are having their hair cut, the feeling of hands running through the hair landing on the face or body and the noise of scissors can cause distress.” – Meleri Thomas, National Autistic Society
For parents with an autistic child, routine parental responsibilities can prove exceptionally difficult. One such routine? Getting their children’s hair cut.
Per the UK National Health Service, autistic children display the following behaviors:
– “reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else”
– “not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own space”
– “preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to this routine”
These are perhaps the biggest problems when a parent takes an autistic child to the hairdresser. A regular haircut usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes while remaining still in a chair – something that autistic children have an exceptionally difficult time doing.
For hairdressers, there’s also an inherent risk. After all, cutting hair requires the use of scissors – and a sudden jerk can injure the child. The difficulties and risks a hairdresser must deal with have led to many within the profession turning away autistic kids.
Fortunately, there are some hairdressers with the patience, heart, and skill to tend to these special children’s needs.
Donncha O’Connell: “We do have a few kids with special needs coming in. You take your time. (I) find that if you’re relaxed around them then they generally don’t have an issue.”
As with many autistic children, 16-year old Evan O’Dwyer has his “safe places” – one happens to be the backseat of his Mother’s car, where Evan enjoys eating and even getting dressed.
When the young man objected to getting his hair cut in the shop, barber Donncha O’Connell was unflappable. He grabbed his tools while following Evan to the back of the car. Apparently, Mr. O’Connell’s kindness and warmth left a lasting impressing on young Evan.
“Evan for the last 14 years has gone back to the same place. I just found there was something about Donncha. He’s so laidback. He’s so good,” says Evan’s mother, Deirdre.
Mr. O’Connell just takes it all in stride: “I’ve never cut anyone’s hair in the back of the car. (It’s) not a huge deal. Obviously, it’s a big thing for Deirdre. You do what you have to do.”
“Evan can decide where and when he wants to get his hair done, but we go with it.”
James (Jim) Williams: “I want barbers and hairdressers to understand autism. (It) changed my whole aspect of the world.”
James Williams, the owner of a barber shop in Wales, Great Britain, says “Some hairdressers refuse to cut the hair of autistic children. That’s because they will scream and respond badly, but I’m trying to get the message out there that they shouldn’t be turned away.” He adds “One of the biggest arguments I have with other hairdressers is when they make someone with autism sit in a chair to have their hair cut.”
Mr. Williams has cut a child’s hair in some interesting places: lying on the floor, sitting on a desk, on a windowsill, and in a car. How does he do it? “I try to pick up on the child’s emotions.”
One of William’s clients, a 5-year old boy named Seb, had a bit of a hard time at first. “To start with, he would walk around the salon with James following him cutting it when he could. Now he sits in a chair with his iPad and, for the most part, allows Jim to do it,” explains his mother Claire, “Although Seb still grumbles Jim will joke with him.”
Mr. Williams plans to create a map of hairdressers where autistic children “are actively welcome” and publish it online.