The author and her son, attempting a haircut. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski)
The author and her son, attempting a haircut. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski)

Just before his first birthday, I took my son to get his first haircut at my favorite salon in Rehoboth Beach, Del. His soft, curly brown hair was a frizzy mess, and he was long overdue for a cut.

My little guy sat perfectly still, while my friend, Bobby, chosen for this special first occasion, picked out his hair and then cut it with long scissors. I marveled that my son sat so quietly, hardly moving. I had no idea what a nightmare it would be eight months later when I took him for his second haircut.

By then, my son’s pediatrician was convinced that he was on the autism spectrum, although he was not formally diagnosed until he was almost 3. I didn’t see any of it coming. It’s almost painful now to look back and try to shake myself retrospectively into awareness.

Many children don’t like to get their hair cut. Or their nails trimmed. Or their nose wiped or their face washed. But for a lot of children with autism, these personal grooming rituals can be a horribly uncomfortable experience, causing them to panic. Because autistic children process information differently, including sensation, cutting their hair or nails can feel painful to them. No matter how many times I plead with my son that I’m not hurting him when I cut his fingernails the fact is that I don’t know for certain that this is true.

“Some people with autism, the sound of scissors cutting their hair bothers them. Or the buzzers used,” said Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services for Autism Speaks. “Also it’s a new experience that is a little odd. You have this piece of yourself that you’re going to cut and you see it fall on the floor. We talk about preparing the person with autism to let them know that it’s going to happen. For many it needs to be done in very small steps.”

For my son’s second cut, still unaware of any of this, I picked an Arab barbershop within walking distance of our house in Chicago. I was excited about this place, too. I adopted both of my sons from Morocco and am eager to incorporate their birth language and culture into our daily lives. The Arab men in our neighborhood hang out at this barbershop, with its nondescript name, J-5. The barbers and stylists are from Iraq, where I lived and worked as a reporter for several years, so it had a connection for me, too.

My son shifted restlessly on my lap and kept trying to grab the scissors from the stylist. I attributed it to his age, a toddler now, and the stylist and I both decided that she’d use clippers instead so he wouldn’t hurt himself with the scissors. He cried at the sound. I tried to distract him by singing to him and propping his iPad up on in front of the mirror so he could watch a video. It mostly worked until it no longer did.

By the second or third time I took him to the barbershop, my son knew what was coming the minute we went through the doorway. He’d start crying immediately. When the stylist tried to cut his hair, he’d scream and twist in my arms like he was being tortured, which is probably what it felt like to him.

I hated these haircuts as much as my son did. I went armed with lollipops, oranges, videos and pinwheels for him to wave. I held him in a bear hug, whispering in his ear and telling the stylist to please hurry. I tried to explain that my son was autistic, but my Arabic was too limiting. The last time I took him for a cut, I was so upset that I mixed up the numbers four and seven in Arabic, and he ended up with a buzz cut, his beautiful curls gone. It was the last time we went.

It was not the calm scene in recent photos posted to Facebook of a Wales barber cutting a young autistic boy’s hair. The photos went viral earlier this month, with more than 15,000 likes and nearly 4,000 shares. The photos show barber James Williams stretched out on the floor cutting young Mason’s hair while the boy is distracted by a video or game on a phone.

As autism parents, we know. We get it. We get the struggle. We get the relief that Mason’s parents must have felt when they found someone who took the time to understand. We love you barber man. If we could afford to fly to Wales, we would.

In the United States, several chains of children’s salons specialize in cutting the hair of kids with special needs, including Cartoon Cuts and Snip-its , which partnered with Autism Speaks to produce a video and tips for parents and stylists.

“We have stylists who have knelt down in the waiting room, in front of a television, when the children were too afraid to move to the styling chair,” said Kathleen Perkal, founder of Cartoon Cuts. “We have stylists who allow the kids to come in and sit and talk for a few minutes, without getting a service, just to help build a level of comfort in the salon.  It takes a blend of patience and tranquility to make it work, but my staff tells me about kids who have been coming to them for 20 years or more.”

Sandra Burton doesn’t specialize in cutting the hair of autistic children, but the 47-year-old Bristow, Virginia, woman has a number of clients on the spectrum. Burton brings her scissors to people’s homes, which she’s done full-time since 2006, traveling all across Northern Virginia.

She doesn’t have any special tricks, said Burton, who is on a list of stylists and barbers that the Autism Society of Northern Virginia provides to parents. “I stay calm and do it fast and pretty much I get whatever I can get until they get used to it,” she said.

Just before school started this year, I invited my cousin, Steve, a middle school teacher, to our house to see if my son would let his “Uncle Steve” cut his hair. While my son sat on a toy car in our backyard, Steve was able to cut his hair with clippers, talking softly to him and praising him. About a month later, my son again sat quietly with a game on his lap while Steve successfully clipped his hair.

I felt relieved more than anything, for my son and for me, although I also know that his likes and dislikes can change abruptly. If he loves taking a bath on Monday, by Wednesday he might hate it. He will be obsessed with purple socks for two weeks and then one day not notice that I’ve put the brown ones on his feet. I need to get my son’s hair cut again in a few weeks, and I’ll be anxious to see how it goes. I hope Steve isn’t booked.

Until then, I take comfort in the encouragement I got recently from my college friend, Omonpee Petcoff, who has an 18-year-old son, Desmond, who is on the autism spectrum. I’ve watched her handsome son grow into an incredible young man and an advocate for autism awareness. His hair is always—and noticeably for me, impeccably groomed.

I asked Omonpee recently if she and her husband used to cut his hair at home. She was too afraid she’d cut off his ear, she said. Instead they kept taking Desmond to the barber and encouraging him to sit still, which he eventually learned to do. Desmond’s last prom haircut had intricate designs, which Omonpee called a miracle given how still he had to sit for this.

And then she told me what I needed to hear, one parent of an autistic son to another.

“Yes, it does get better,” she said with assurance. “It really does.”

Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and the mother of two boys.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more updates, essays and news. Want to get it all delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for our newsletter.

You might also be interested in:

Why playgrounds are a nightmare for some parents

A baby in Morocco

Finding her way after her child’s diagnosis