In autism, there's no such thing as a simple shave and a haircut

Liz Becker


I tried taking my autistic son, Matt for professional hair care, but I soon found that there was no such thing as a simple haircut. Matt, not wanting to sit in the chair, put on the apron, or watch a pointed object approach his head, would struggle and fight through the entire process. I finally decided I would have to attempt to cut his hair myself. I hoped that maybe being in the comfort of familiar surroundings of home, that maybe, just maybe, we could be successful.

I talked him into sitting in the chair and even in wearing the plastic drape, but all that cooperation disappeared when I got out the scissors. As I tried to trim his hair Matt would unexpectedly jut his fingers up between the blades of the shears in an attempt to stop the process: he squirmed, twisted, his hands in constant motion the entire time. He especially hated the sound of his hair being trimmed around his ears - his hands again flying upward to cover and protect them. It was exhausting, for both of us.

This would be our routine for quite some time. With no professional to cut his hair and me as his hair stylist, the poor guy endured haircut after haircut. I was pretty awful at it in the beginning and must confess there were several times the end result was absolutely ghastly. The only thought that allowed me to keep my sanity and lessen the guilt of the jagged edges and roller-coaster bangs was the knowledge that it would soon grow out again - a double-edged sword as the process of cutting his hair was also rife with guilt and stress.

So it turned out that a simple haircut was not so simple. The worst one was when he was between the ages of 3-4 years old. The hair cut was taking a very long time as I maneuvered around those tiny exposed fingers, trying to calm him with my voice while I brushed his hands away with one hand and cut his hair with the other. Having gotten just enough out of eyes and from around his ears and exhausted from the battle, I finally removed the drape and he hopped down. Unfortunately, just when I was about to have that sigh of relief and thank my lucky stars for having not injured him, I witnessed one of the most heart-wrenching scenes. Matt stared sadly at his hair on the floor. With tears in his eyes, he bent over and slowly picked up a hand full of scattered clippings and tried to place them back on his head. No matter how hard he tried, the hair simply slid off and fell back to the floor, and each attempt was met with even more tears. Matt sat on the floor, mourning a piece of himself (his hair), a piece that was now lost forever.

I imagined he must have asked himself why? Why would his mother do this to him? Why would his mother I remove parts of him and sweep it into the trash? I can’t imagine his confusion or depth of despair at the forced removal of pieces of his own body. As I thought about what he was going through I became racked with guilt. It made me realize that there is so much more to a haircut than simply cutting hair. Matt didn’t understand the “why” and in his panic to save himself, he would risk bodily harm. I can to this day, close my eyes and remember those tiny fingers trying desperately to stop me by getting between the strands of hair and the blade of the sheers. That was over 20 years ago. Some memories are difficult to erase. Realizing that my son actually thought I was trying to take a piece of him and throw it away shook me to my core. I learned an important lesson that day - everything needed a "why."

I am happy to say it got better after that. Having witnessed his despair I came to realize that I had approached it all wrong. I should have cut his brother’s hair in front of Matt, and probably his daddy’s hair too. I should have let him feel the scissors and have him cut a piece of hair himself. I should have talked it through step by step and repeatedly for several days prior to the actual cutting. I understand now that Matt struggled and fought me because he was afraid. He distrusted me afterward because I had removed a part of him with no explanation as to why. I deserved it - for I treated him like . . . a child.

In order for a simple hair cut to be a simple hair cut I needed to take each step apart and explain the "whys" and show him examples of others having it done. He needed to see that it was OK, that no pain was involved. A simple hair cut may have actually been a simple hair cut if I had thought it out better. After a few years of practice and patience and the cooperation of both my oldest son and husband in being role-models, Matt’s fear disappeared. He now comes willingly to the chair, keeps his hands under wraps, and checks the final style in the mirror to make sure it is to his expectations - all very normal behaviors. This could’ve happened sooner had I just known of his fears. We didn’t have any problems with hair for several years – until Matt’s other hair began to grow.

Puberty seemed to arrive much quicker than anticipated. I was unprepared for the changes in his body, his voice and his behaviors. Matt had learned to put on deodorant, brush his teeth himself, and now it was time for him to take his own shower without help or supervision. Prior to the onset of puberty I had always ran the water for him, brought in his clothes, got his towel ready and midway through the splashing of toys would wash his hair. Then one day I noticed he had a small patch of pubic hair – it was time for mom to back out and turn over the nightly bath to my husband. The change in routine was difficult at first, but Matt was also becoming very aware of what other guys did – mainly his brother and daddy – and was easily convinced to attempt the shower in lieu of a bath. In the beginning there were many failed attempts - times when all he did was get wet. He would emerge from the bathroom with a dirt ring still around his neck, his hair wet, but still greasy and dirty. I would have to send him back in to do it again. When I sent him in I would give more detailed instructions - something he really needed. He learned quickly that I would inspect his neck and ankles and fingernails and smell his hair afterwards and this helped him to realize what was needed. Still, there were times in which I suspected he only washed those specific areas....

Next, Matt’s facial hair had started to come in. We attempted the “shave”. I tried to help him once or twice, but let's face it, I don’t shave my face and am not the right person to instruct him. I tried - really - but I just couldn’t seem to help him do it right. Tom, my husband, stepped in at this point and went over the procedure step by step, taking his time and explaining each part. He had watched Tom and Christopher shave, and this help to at least give him the courage to try it, for which I am thankful. Matt even thought the foam shaving cream was pretty cool and liked putting it on his face, but the fun stopped there - he hated the scratchy feel of a razor. His face always appeared irritated afterward and soon acne started to form. After a few months of struggling with regular razors we switched him to an electric razor - heck, what did we have to lose? Unfortunately, he hated the buzzing sound and again, the blades tugged at his whiskers - he just couldn’t stand it. I understood. Matt was tired of having to rub this metal torture devise across his face. Why? Not "why was it a torture device?", I got that. I meant, "why does he need to shave?" It seemed reasonable that there was still a choice left –keep the beard.

Matt was only in 9th grade when he began to really grow his beard. Christopher also grew out his facial hair, and Tom allowed his own beard to emerge again. I watched as Matt’s face transformed to one with a beard. He looked so much older. To be truthful, he looked a bit scary – a big guy, a beard, and now a deeper voice too- what a huge transformation from my sweet little boy into the physically adult (and scary-looking) Matt. He appeared so rough to my eyes that my first thought (and I kid you not) was, “this is definitely not someone you would want to run into in a dark alley”. I needed time to adjust..... Slowly, I did adjust. I actually began to like this new persona for exactly that reason - that no stranger would ever think of him as helpless and this brought me some peace of mind. I really began to enjoy this new look - bad-assed Matt!

So, Matt takes showers, gets his hair trimmed on a regular basis and has a beard – a really cool one. He lets me trim it up and allows me to thin it out to make it appear neat and tidy, but not because he needs it to look a certain way - I’m the one who wants it trimmed (he would let his beard grow to his feet if I let him. At the rate it grows it could be there in about 6 months). What I like is that Matt’s happy with the way he looks. And although it took some getting used to, I am too. He really has come a very long way and through it all I learned a lot about my son, about myself … and about autism.

I have found that just as with most matters concerning the autistic child, time and patience brings revelation and clarity. And although there may be no such thing as a simple haircut, given enough thought and understanding there will still be some success. Matt may not shave, but he sure can rock a beard!


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