With Aspergers and High Functioning Autism (HFA), the brain seems unable to balance the senses appropriately. It's common for these youngsters to have sensory problems. They may be hypo-active (low sensitivity) or hyper-reactive (high sensitivity) or lack the ability to combine the senses.
Aspergers and HFA kids often have a "fight or flight" response to sensation. This condition is called "sensory defensiveness" and may be diagnosed as a "sensory processing disorder." These children can be sensitive to many things (e.g., the noise hair clippers make, the sensation of cutting hair, feeling loose hairs on their body, seeing hair fall on their clothing or the floor, etc.). When their perceptions are accurate, they can learn from what they see, feel, or hear. On the other hand, if sensory information is faulty, their experiences of the world can be confusing. Many young people with Aspergers and HFA are highly attuned - or even painfully sensitive - to certain sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.
Here are some proven strategies that will facilitate your Aspergers or HFA child getting an anxiety-free haircut:
1. Allow your youngster to give an old doll or teddy bear a haircut while his own hair is being cut. This may help your youngster learn to generalize the experience. You or the barber can also use the doll or teddy bear to demonstrate what it is you need or expect your youngster to do. For example, act out directions to "turn your head to the right" or "hold your head down." These are strong visual cues and may be better understood.
2. At home, find opportunities to teach daily living skills, particularly hygiene and grooming. For example, your youngster may learn how to:
- choose an appropriate outfit to wear
- clean the shower/tub
- determine how long to stay in the shower or tub
- put his dirty clothes away
- run his own bath water at the right temperature
- shower or take a bath independently
- use deodorant
- wash his body properly
3. Before you begin, it is better to wash the hair to remove any hair products build-up. Cutting clean, dry hair with clippers is much faster and easier. Use unscented shampoo and conditioner if your youngster is sensitive to smells or odors. (Warning: Some Aspergers kids do not like having their hair washed.)
4. Be sure your youngster has a cape, sheet or towel draped over him.
5. Buy a good quality home hair-cutting kit. Look for clippers with blade guards to avoid cutting the hair too short.
6. Develop a routine for haircuts. Does your youngster need a haircut or trim every week, every other week or once a month? Try to schedule them for the same day of the week and time of day whenever possible (e.g., every other Saturday morning). Be consistent.
7. Edge the front, sides and nape of the neck first for a shape-up then cut the hair. Should your youngster not tolerate a haircut before you or the barber is done, a shape-up will give him a clean, fresh haircut look, even if the hair has not been entirely cut.
8. Explain to your youngster exactly what you are planning to do during the haircut. Use short sentences or visual supports using personal photos or picture icons. Take pictures while your youngster is getting a haircut. Take a picture of all the items used.
9. Focus on the task at hand. Try to cut the hair as fast as you can without rushing. Try not to stop cutting hair to talk to others, in person or on the phone.
10. For a youngster that is sensitive to the buzz sounds of the clippers or the snap of a scissor, try using soft, flexible ear plugs. Does your youngster like to sing? Sing a song. Play some of their favorite music.
11. Observe your youngster while cutting his hair. Is there anything he particularly dislikes or finds intolerable? If so, try to eliminate it or make it better.
12. Once the haircut is done, admire your youngster's clean-cut appearance (e.g., "You look handsome!"). Show him how he looks in the mirror, if tolerated. Take before and after photos so he can see the benefits of getting a haircut. Use this opportunity to begin to teach him how to comb and brush his own hair.
13. Help your youngster learn how to help put items away, clean and oil the clippers, sweep or vacuum cut hair off the floor, put dirty clothes and towels in the hamper or washing machine, etc. He can also learn how to sort laundry, load and wash his clothes, put clothes in the dryer, fold clothes, and iron.
14. Reassure your youngster during the haircut. Explain each step of the way in a slow and steady voice. Praise him (e.g., "Good job keeping your head still"). Let your youngster know that there is an end in sight. This step may be faded out gradually as your youngster becomes more familiar with the process.
15. Remember to give your youngster a reward or bonus that he will enjoy. Give your youngster a choice for his bonus. A reward or bonus will show him that although we must do unpleasant things sometimes, we also get to do things that we enjoy.
16. Schedule a haircut when your youngster is least likely to be sensory overloaded or feeling overwhelmed by the information he is taking in through the five senses: hearing, vision, touch, smell and taste. Try to avoid scheduling haircuts after school or when your youngster is ill or tired.
17. Take each haircut session one at a time. Observe your youngster, take notes if necessary. You will learn more about him each time.
18. Think of a few activities, toys or food your youngster really enjoys to use as his special reward or bonus. What does he like to do? What makes him happy?
19. Under supervision allow your youngster to handle the clippers and other items used for the haircut. At home, allow him to help you prepare for it (e.g., he can get a towel and the comb or brush). Teach him how to clean the clippers (e.g., brush off any loose hairs from the blade and oil the clippers). This can be a good motivator – and it's fun learning in the natural environment.
20. Unless your youngster is better able to tolerate a haircut, keep their hairstyles simple (e.g., "fades" and elaborate parts and designs in the hair will take longer to cut).
The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook