Cutting Hair for Children with Autism

Hair cutting may seem like a very typical routine, but can be extremely difficult for children with autism. 

 

What makes hair cutting so difficult? 

  • Not understanding the expectations?
  • Sounds in the hair salon are too overwhelming?
  • Intolerance towards sensations (spraying of water on their hair, falling of cut hair on their neck)? 

Prerequisites:

  • Basic cooperation & compliance with First Then instructions
  • Understanding of basic instructions 
  • Understanding of the Visual Schedule
  • Some level of functional communication
  • Ability to sit still on a chair for an increasing amount of time 

Materials:

  1. Social Story on Hair Cutting (preferably Video Model as well)
  2. Clipper/Scissors (child-safe scissors)/Razor
  3. Hair Dryer
  4. Spray bottle
  5. Cape
  6. First Then board
  7. Visual Schedule of the routine 

Before Starting:

1. Identify the Key Challenges! Any child can have more than 1 challenge, for example: 

  • Tolerating the sound of scissors clipping around their hair
  • Sitting through the entire hair cutting routine
  • Tolerating wearing the cape
  • Loud sounds of the hair dryers
  • Spraying of water on the hair 

 

2. Use super strong and exclusive rewards! 

Steps:

Item List for Cutting Hair

 

1. Communicate expectations 

  • Using social story, video model, visual schedule, communicate the steps for hair cutting to your child clearly.
  • (Optional) go through children’s books/cartoons on getting haircuts to expose your child to the concept visually, without any demand, to build that desensitization and tolerance 

2. Probe 

  • Introduce hair cutting tools (cape, scissors, hair dryer, spray bottle etc.)
  • Try introducing one at a time or put them all out on the table to probe level of interest/distress
  • If your child moves away from the items, it will be good to start introducing it to them gradually (further place in the room, or just using pictures initially)
  • Child is not required to touch the items at this stage
  • Do remember to read the social story and/or show them the video model to provide predictability! You would also start to model (e.g. getting a doll to “sit” in a chair and “get a haircut”, or demonstrate it on ourselves).

 

* These are additional steps to reduce anxiety a child may face surrounding this particular routine 

3. Practice 

  • Start with one specific target (e.g. wearing the cape)
  • It may be just wearing the cape for a start, with the goal to gradually increase the duration of time spent wearing the cape. 

 

  • For the cape, gradually build tolerance through

I. Tapping the cape on their body without securing it

II. Leaving the cape on their body longer

III. Securing the cape on your child’s body

IV. Wearing the secured cape longer 

 

 

  • Next phase: scissors

I. Tolerate movement and sounds of the scissors snipping around their head

II. Have the scissors touching their hair (do this at every angle!)

III. Build up the duration 

 

 

  • Cutting/trimming your child’s hair 

I. Start with moving the scissors around their head before snipping once, then provide immediate reinforcement

II. Gradually build the number of actual snips of their hair, starting from 1 snip to 3, 5, 6, 9 until the ideal duration is met 

 

Note: Ideal duration would be how long it would take for the hairdresser to cut your child’s hair. Please be mindful when doing this practice, to trim a bit of hair per snip so your child still looks good and that there is enough hair for the hairdresser to cut. 

 

 

  • Tolerating hair falling onto neck/shoulders: allow the hair to fall a little on their neck and shoulders – if your child is squirming/trying to escape, take it back a step or two. 

4. The Big Day 

  • Explain to the hairdresser the objectives and areas of challenge your child will experience during hair cutting

 

  • Highly recommended: schedule visits to the hair salon with no pressure to cut hair at initial visits. Instead, try these activities: 

a. Sit on the chair

b. Wear the cape

c. Sit longer on the chair

d. Sit with the cape

e. Sit with scissors moving around 

 

These visits are helpful as they will also be able to desensitize to the surrounding of the hair salon (e.g. sound of hair dryers) while sitting on the chair and practise. 

 

 

  • Time to pass the baton–to the hairdresser! 

a. Come prepared with visuals and materials that would help increase your child’s success.

b. You may still need to hold them in case they do move about!

c. Reward: One ultimate reward is to be given for this ultimate experience – important to build a positive association with the hairdresser! 

How to practice:

  1. Read the “Hair Cutting” social story
  2. Show the First Then chart and the reward to your child
  3. Show the video model
  4. Begin the practice!
  5. Review 

 

If it went well: 

  • Plan for the next hair cut (not too long away so your child is still familiar with the procedures)
  • Generalize expectations with a different hair stylist/salon.

 

If it didn’t go well: 

  • Troubleshoot-which parts still need to be simplified or practiced further
  • Issue of sound tolerance: may be necessary to choose the quietest time to go to the salon, and request that initially no hair dryers or electric razors are turned on 

Your Turn

Try to identify and probe your child’s level of tolerance towards haircutting.

Once the key challenges are identified, use Steps 1-4 and plan as well as start a haircut tolerance programme for your child.