Going to get a haircut for the first time can be a scary experience for kids, but the fear tends to subside with more visits. The same cannot be said, however, for neurodivergent kids, who have unique sensitivities that make any visit to the salon or barber a challenge.
Being neurodivergent means you experience the world differently from many people. As many parents of children who have sensory processing disorders know, this can turn what might seem like a common errand into an ordeal.
This is because neurodivergent children often have sensitivities to sights, sounds, textures and other sensory stimuli. Autism Research Institute describes this phenomenon as a result of their senses being over- or under-reactive to stimulation. They process sensory information differently.
Some children on the autism spectrum experience synesthesia. Synesthesia is a blending of the senses where one sense can produce another sense at the same time. This means someone with this condition may hear shapes, perceive or associate a certain color with a sound or experience sound as a physical sensation.
Sometimes, certain sounds or textures can even be felt as pain. According to research published in peer-reviewed journal BMC Psychiatry, synesthesia is more common in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Autism Research Institute explains that these differences can present in a variety of ways, including withdrawing from touch, refusing to wear certain types of clothes or eat certain foods, distress when having the hair or face washed, clumsiness or odd posture.
All of these factors can make receiving a haircut a uniquely challenging experience, and not every salon or barber is prepared for it.
Haircuts involve a wide variety of stimulation from touching a child’s hair to washing it, to the sound of the clippers or other customers to tolerating close physical contact with someone the child may not be familiar with.
What Parents Can Do
There are a few things parents can do to help children who have sensory processing difficulties have a good experience with a haircut, explains family stylist Heather Parker, who owns Haircut Heather, in Columbia.
Parker has 12 years of experience in the field and has received training and certifications in working with neurodivergent children. Parker has also worked with Verbal Beginnings (which provides social and therapy services in Columbia and beyond, with summer programs in the DMV) to provide haircuts for children with ASD.
The most important thing parents can do, according to Parker, is remain calm. If the parent and the stylist seem anxious, the child will notice.
Parker says for stylists, the haircut process for children with ASD involves getting on their level and moving slowly while you figure out what bothers them. What overwhelms one child may not bother another, as every child on the autism spectrum can experience the world differently.
Another thing parents can do is look for a stylist who cuts hair in a more intimate setting, such as a one-customer-at-a-time studio. The more intimate environment removes the stimulation of other customers and can comfort children who are shy or more sensitive to having eyes on them.
Parents can also prepare their children by introducing them to the idea of getting a haircut beforehand. Let your child know as much of what they can expect as possible. This might include showing them a video of another child getting a haircut, letting them watch you get your hair cut or reading them a story about a haircut.
Reading books like “Even Monsters Need Haircuts,” by Matthew McElligott, or “Haircut for Lion,” by Michael Dahl, can be a great way to bond with your child and help them warm up to the idea.
For some parents, the best choice for your child’s hair may be learning to cut it yourself. For parents looking to go this route, visit clamingclipper.com for free tips on giving sensory-friendly haircuts. Calming Clipper also sells a 17-piece kit including a haircut guidebook.
Where to Go
We reached out to local parents of children with autism through Facebook to find out where their children had positive haircut experiences. Parents recommended Haircut Heather and Cookie Cutters Haircuts, in Lutherville.
Other neurodivergent-friendly salons include Bravado Hair Design, in Washington, D.C. (A parent’s review of this location said their child watched cartoons and didn’t even realize his hair was being cut.) and Snip-Its, in Gambrills, which partnered with Autism Speaks to create a haircut guide for children with ASD: snipits.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Autism-Speaks_Haircut-guide.pdf
Haircut Heather (Heather Parker)
6505 Dobbin Road, Suite 5
Columbia, MD. 21045
1510 York Road, Suite 1510
Timonium, MD. 21093
*Cookie Cutters also has locations in Ellicott City and Nottingham.
Bravado Hair Design
655 C Street SE
Washington, D.C. 20003
Waugh Chapel Towne Centre
1406 S. Main Chapel Way
Gambrills, MD. 21054