The typical haircut for boys involves staying still, being patient, following directions, strangers touching you, sharp things you’re not supposed to touch, lots of shiny distractions like running water and mirrors, bright lights, strange smells, scratchy feelings, tickly feelings, itchy feelings, loud, buzzing noises near your head….and if that wasn’t enough, things CHANGE. If you have a typical boy with a typical hair style to maintain, that can already be daunting enough to get through (nevermind pay for) every few weeks.
If you have a boy with Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder, the whole affair is enough to send you screaming into another dimension — preferably one where a kid can blend in with his peers by having a lot of hair.
Ash didn’t have his first haircut until part-way through being three years old. Blending in with peers wasn’t an issue, since he didn’t really have any. We weren’t exactly concerned with him, “Looking more like a boy,” considering that whenever Steffan didn’t have to hack off his hair in the name of job hunts, he grew his long. I found Ash’s wayward golden curls endearing, and wasn’t in any hurry to remove them. And….ok….yes, when you got right down to it, we simply dreaded the thought of getting him through a haircut, let alone a first one. We decided that we’d push (brave) the issue when and only when HE seemed to be annoyed by the length of his hair.
Ash in late August, 2008, shortly before his first haircut. I remember a mother at the playground tried to scold me that day, for “confusing people” — apparently it wasn’t right for me to have a “beautiful child” with long hair, holding flowers, yet wearing all blue.
When the time came, we knew we’d have to attempt it at home. At least there the feared disaster would be private, and wouldn’t waste money we didn’t have. It might even be a little less of a disaster, because more of the elements of the direct experience and the sensory environment, could be controlled. The question was — HOW would we do it at home? When a child moves as spastically as Ash did (often enough, still does), mangling only a haircut with scissor-use is the least of your worries. Cutters have less in the way of exposed blades and pointy bits, but they create a sound which can drill away at the nerves of someone who doesn’t have a sensory disorder. Knawing his hair off with my teeth was not an option, as occasionally desperation presented it as, for the little, clipper-avoiding razors (I mean nails) he had as a baby.
Salvation came in the form of a “razor comb”, that first one a now-discontinued model made by Conair. It was a vaguely rounded-squarish piece of plastic molded with comb-like teeth on two opposite sides, the teeth on the front and back of a side being different lengths relative to the blade sandwiched between them. The end result was that you could evenly cut hair to four different lengths, based on which edge you held facing and moving down through the hair. Further variation could be achieved by adjusting the angle, relative to the head, that you held the tool at. Having also used this simple wonder to change my husband’s mid-back-long hair into a ‘business cut’, and he being able to express himself, I can confidently say that use of the razor comb generally felt no different (excepting falling bits of hair) than use of a normal comb. If you didn’t rinse or brush the hair off it mid-haircut it might eventually do less smooth and fast a cutting job and a hair might catch and pull, but as the caught hair was against a blade, generally the pain lasted less time than it normally takes to deal with a tangle during normal hair-combing. It was impossible to get anything but hair cut by the blade, and to sustain a puncture would you’d pretty much have to forcefully press a corner directly into the eye. It was also extremely hard to mess up, no matter how someone failed to hold still — in fact, it was possible to get some of it done WHILE they were moving.
Ash after his first haircut. Also featured in the photo are the then-ever-present Blankie (still a comfort object, but now only used at bedtime), the one-eyebrow-raise that Ash got from me, the disintegrating homemade couch a friend gave us, and to complete the home decor on the rental’s 80s-tastic rug, a box of paper recyclables that Ash got into.
I won’t tell you that the first haircut, even with the convenience of the razor comb, was the most easy-going, feel-good time that our family ever spent together. It was a new experience, and Ash pretty much never handled any kind of new experience well, in those days. Still, he got over it as soon as we were done, give or take feeling his own hair a little more than usual — which is pretty impressive, considering some parents I know report that their autistic sons go through a week or two of regressive fallout after each trip to the barber.
Going on three years of regular hair-trims later, we still give Ash his haircuts at home, and we still use a razor comb. The razors in our old Conair one weren’t replaceable, so now we have a Seki Edge dial-a-cut styling razor haircutter. One side is molded with standard comb teeth, and the other is molded for a blended-length effect. Adjusting the numbered dial in the middle shifts what holds the (replaceable) razor blades inside from one side to the other, allowing for a lot of customized control. I used a fine-point sharpie to write notes on mine about what numbers I use, just to keep things consistent. The handle can be locked at either angle to adjust for handedness or just general comfort, and the product opens easily to clean, dry, or change the blades.
I might just be in love with this thing.
I give Ash his haircut while he’s taking a bath, so that all the tickly bits can immediately be washed off of him. It takes me perhaps two minutes total, with the Seki Edge, to give him almost his entire haircut, and he doesn’t complain. The only things I ever need to do with mini-scissors, and in installments to suit Ash’s capacity to keep still on any given day, are trimming around his ears (so that his hair doesn’t have to be shorter than he likes on the sides of his head, while still not brushing over his ears), and trimming his unavoidable, his-hair-grows-in-a-spiral-pattern bangs. Occasionally he even asks for me to trim his hair, and people generally marvel that he’s able to handle us taking him to have it done professionally. *ahem*
Want to make the transition to easy haircuts, even easier? If you think it would help your child, buy a scrap piece of some of that “fun fur” fabric with a long, plush nap, and let them stroke the razor comb through it to give it a hair-trim. (We find the word “trim” is less trigger-happy than the word “cut” – it sounds less painful, and less drastic.) They can see how it will work, before you put it to work on them.