If you had asked me what Kate's greatest sensory discomfort was, I would have said it was related to her hair. Until today, she did not let us brush her hair and a proper haircut was out of the question. Then something changed. First let me explain a little about why haircuts can be so hard for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Firstly, our children, very often, have sensory processing issues. So, the simple stroke of a hairbrush can be very uncomfortable and even painful for a child who would be known as a sensory-defender. Secondly, our children are very literal. They may fully believe that getting their hair cut will hurt. Thirdly, children with autism often experience levels of anxiety that make a visit to the salon very difficult. And lastly, because communication is often impaired in children with autism it can be very difficult to explain the concept of getting a haircut even with social stories, signs and modelled behaviour.
Unfortunately, a trip to the salon can result in a meltdown for some children on the spectrum. Trust me when I say a meltdown is not a tantrum. A meltdown is usually sparked by an overload of sensory input. Yes, you've felt sensory overload before, too, but the difference is, YOU can regulate yourself. Our children often cannot and will use stimming as a self-regulating tool until even that does not help. It cannot be solved by giving the child what they want, like a tantrum. It must run its course and we do our best to help keep our child and others safe during one of these episodes.
Kate had a handful of haircuts before today. The first took place in a salon and we, along with the other patrons, were treated to a meltdown of biblical proportions. Our amazing hairdresser (our friend really, but for the sake of anonymity we'll call her 'the hairdresser') came to our house for each haircut since. We'd rather not end up like the family in this story: click here.
The haircuts at home took place on our deck. I would hold Kate down with all my strength while her hairdresser cut her hair as quickly and as well as she could while Kate screamed and writhed in my arms. She would often scream so loud and for so long that we would pause and listen for sirens. I still wonder what our neighbours must think.
I once thought it would be a good idea to show Kate the hair that had been cut and had fallen on the deck. I held up the blonde curls hoping it might make her feel better. Remember, when I said they were literal? Yeah, it didn't go well. She shuddered in fear. Things escalated. Oh well, live and learn.
Today, it was time for Grace to get a haircut at the salon. I knew I could bring Kate with me because Kate lives very much in the moment. The salon would not scare her. She cannot predict what is about to happen and she would not have mistakenly thought we were there to get her hair cut. She sat with a Ninja Turtle in each hand and watched the little boy before Grace get his hair shaped into the perfect Back to School Mohawk. Next, Grace was called up. We stood to walk to the chair when we noticed Kate was slipping between us and crawling up to sit in the salon chair. Her hairdresser took full advantage of the opportunity and starting singing the theme song of the Ninja Tutles to Kate while she covered her in an apron and began cutting her hair (I told you she was awesome). Kate squeezed her turtles and watched in the mirror as she got her first real haircut, ever.
I was stunned. The hairdresser was stunned. Grace was stunned. I waited for her to change her mind. I braced for the biting and the crying but they didn't come. She did it. She sat for a haircut like a champ. I am still smiling. Her sister was so proud of her that she asked me to take Kate's picture. She is kindly helping Kate look towards the camera in this photo. You'll understand if this is one of my favourite photos ever. Our team is taking another win today.
Grace and Kate's mom. (Shanell)