BRAWD AUTISTICO "Who's a Pretty Boy, then?"
“HOLD HIM DOWN!”
Mam mumbles something inaudible, grappling with his wriggling arms.
“There, there- it’s alright mate, it’s alright…”
My brother screams at the top of his lungs, a blood-curdling scream that ties a knot in my stomach and makes me feel sad and pitiful. His face is a beetroot-red, veins throbbing on the side of his head… the hairdresser lunges forward, snipping off a bit of his hair. My brother wails. “Oh, my…”
“Aw, such a pretty boy! Look how handsome he is!”
A couple of months later, the living room is a war-zone again. This time around, Taid (English: grandfather) has come to help, and Mam is using electric clippers. Taid helps Dad hold him down while Mam cautiously cuts his hair whilst avoiding his kicking legs.
“Look at the telly!” someone is saying. “Sbia! Yli!”
I think it was the only time I ever saw Taid cry.
Astonishingly, nowadays, my brother delights in getting his haircut! He sits patiently in the chair, watching television, rubbing his hands together excitedly. He enjoys watching the chunks of hair drifting through the air before landing on the ground. If a clump lands on his lap, he delicately picks it up then drops it, laughing gleefully.
Truly, a scene of tranquil serenity in comparison!
I had heard of a boy at my brother’s school (see: BRAWD AUTISTICO “Special School”) who didn’t cut his hair, so I gathered from an early age that it must be “an autistic thing”. But then, in 2017, I saw a news item which opened my eyes to just how common the issue of haircuts is for people on the spectrum:
A barber from Briton Ferry, near Neath Port Talbot in South Wales, was on a mission to make haircuts a more pleasurable experience for autistic children.
James Williams, 27, went viral on a global scale after he posted a video of himself lying on the floor whilst cutting the hair of four-year-old autistic boy, Mason. Mason was watching the news on his phone at the time.
After that, he founded a charity called ‘Autism Barbers Assemble’, and organized an event whereby they cut the hair of sixty children with autism in a salon outside Cardiff.
Today, people travel over 150 miles to have Mr Williams cut their child’s hair!
There are several reasons why getting a haircut can prove to be a traumatic experience for people with autism:
1. Sensory Issues: People on the spectrum often have sensory processing issues, and may be hyper or hyposensitive to stimulation. For example; even the simple stroke of a hair comb may prove uncomfortable, or even painful. The sound of the electric clippers could also be deafening, and all the various sounds in a busy salon could cause a sensory overload, resulting in a “meltdown”
2. Association: This uncomfortable or painful experience occurs when they cut they hair; therefore, cutting one’s hair is painful
3. Thinking very literally: As children, they may think their hair will not grow back
4. Lack of understanding: having little to no understanding of the social expectations of getting your hair cut
5. Resisting Change: many autistic children struggle with the concept of change
6. Anxiety: Perhaps visiting a salon or having a total stranger invade their personal space can be very distressing
But these listed reasons are what you’re likely to find if you research the subject. There is another, very important factor to take into account here:
7. Personal choice
As a society, we are growing increasingly conscious of an individual’s freedom of choice. In fact, when I was working in care, one of the things many companies pushed for were their clients’ “right to make a bad or wrong decision, as long as it falls in line with your duty of care”.
For example; we know smoking is bad, but many people still choose to do it. If an autistic adult in care decides to pick up smoking, using the allowance given by the government (of which they are technically entitled to spend on whatever they like), should the carers step in if the client persistently finds him/herself running out of money, or show signs of bad health, for example? If the client dies as a result of smoking or the family ask to check their life savings, what would people have to say about the care home who let them smoke sixty fags a day?
But that’s an argument for another day- more relevant examples would be allowing a child to choose their own diet, or how they behave in situations or environments where there are certain social expectations to uphold.
The point is that many people would now argue that an autistic child has the right not to have their hair cut, and that forcing them to do so constitutes as abuse. Many ‘neuro-typical’ children protest to having their haircut, but the major difference here, of course, is that non-verbal children cannot communicate what their issue with getting their haircut is.
For example; they may very well prefer short hair, but the sensory factors all prove too much for them, or perhaps they simply don’t want a stranger doing it, or they don’t like the feeling of being ‘constrained’ by an apron or by sitting in a barber’s chair- or, indeed, they may actually prefer not to have a haircut in the first place. Whatever the reason, many children cannot tell us.
But as guardians and mentors, we all have a duty of care to adhere to. There is the issue of hygiene, for example, should an autistic child refuse to cut or wash their hair, or care for it properly. Failure to do so would result in accusations of neglect.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Luckily, as mentioned, my brother now loves getting his haircut. It was about getting the environment right through trial and error; by having Mam being the haircutter, by putting the telly on, etc.
There are plenty of resources you can find online to help you come up with ideas if you’re a parent who’s struggling with a similar issue, but it’s all about knowing your child; do they like music? Can they be distracted? Do they prefer sitting down or lying on the ground?
At the end of the day, you need to forget the conventional rules of getting a haircut, and come up with your own. It's about taking a person-centred approach. There are far more resources available now than there were when my parents were going through this struggle with my brother.
Alternatively, find a barber who specializes in cutting the hair of autistic children. It’s an ever-growing profession, and thankfully, these days, getting a haircut is becoming less and less stressful for autistic children all over the world.
Thanks for reading.
I’m interested to hear from parents of autistic children whom have had similar experiences. Also, what does everyone think of the argument around freedom of choice, and how far should it go?