Preventing Problem Behaviors During Autism Haircuts

I’m often asked, “How do you get a child with autism to tolerate a haircut?” Many young children with autism have a very difficult time tolerating not only haircuts but also nail clipping and all kinds of medical procedures. Today, I’m going to dive in and talk about some ways you can make autism haircuts more tolerable.

autism haircut

You may have seen my recent blog on the first step to tackling problem behaviors. Today I’m going to cover preventing problem behaviors specifically during autism haircuts.

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Way back several years ago I had a client named Max, who was two years old. He was not yet diagnosed with autism. In fact, Max actually never got the diagnosis of autism, but he had major problem behaviors, screaming and crying throughout the day. One day, Mom insisted that she needed to take Max to get a haircut. She had something, a formal event of some sort that weekend, so she insisted that he needed a haircut and that she needed me to go along to see this haircut and give my advice.

So, without making an appointment or selecting a special needs hair salon, we took Max to a franchise type of haircut salon, and let me tell you, it did not go well. We got the newest hairdresser. She looked like a deer in headlights. Max was already crying as soon as we entered the salon. Max was just two, so Mom had him wrapped around her, screaming and flailing, and the hairdresser was not able to do a good job, and it was just a bad experience all around.

When you have problem behaviors like that, it’s really a no-win situation. It’s not like I’m a behavior analyst, I’m going to be able to give advice when a child is screaming and flailing like that. So, it did not go well. All I said to Mom is, “We need to work on haircuts for sure, and we need to make a plan for next time.” So, with my advice in desensitizing Max, he learned not only to tolerate haircuts but actually enjoy them.

So now I just want to give you a few tips to tackle autism haircuts with your child or client. First, I want to say that if a child is having severe problem behaviors, you are going to want to consult with a behavior analyst to help you individualize the plan.

These are just some general tips that I’ve found over the years:

We want to write down the steps of the haircut. If you can proceed alone and it’s safe enough to do that, you can write down the steps of a haircut. So it would be entering the salon, sitting in the chair, tolerating the cape or smock going over the child, the water spray, etc.

I know this water spraying was a particularly hard step for Lucas, my son, and one of my friends, who happens to be a hairdresser, pointed out that the room temperature bottle is at 72 degrees, where your body temperature’s 98.6, so that blast of room temperature water is actually a lot colder than a body temperature, so for my son, that was a step that was hard, but for Max, he had different steps. Entering the barbershop was a big step for him, sitting in a chair. All the steps were a problem.

So we want to write down the steps of the haircut, or any procedure. Then we want to identify the steps that are most problematic for a child, and then we want to practice those steps at home, preferably with someone who knows behavioral strategies. Step by step, we can work to practice those harder areas.

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So, with Max, for instance, we practiced sitting in a chair, even getting a bath towel and putting that around. “Okay, we’re going to practice getting our haircut.” You know, sit in the chair, and tolerate the blanket going on, or cape. If you can get something plastic, that would be fine. And then, get a spray bottle from the Dollar Store, and you may not be ready to use real scissors, you could use Play-Doh scissors or fake scissors, and really practice those steps.

Then when it’s time to transfer those skills to the regular barbershop, you’d want to pick a very child-friendly barbershop with a seasoned professional. So, we always took my son and clients to a local barbershop called Kid’s Kuts, and we only went to the owner or the owner’s daughter. Both were very seasoned, working with typically-developing kids as well as kids with special needs, and had done plenty of autism haircuts in the past.

One of the things that worked for Lucas was creating a photo book, where we could say, you know, “You enter. Michelle’s going to be there. You’re going to sit in the chair. You’re going to get the cape on,” and pictures of either Lucas going through the procedure, or in my case I probably used my typically-developing son who was more compliant at the time.

At the end of whatever barber hairdressing situation you’re going to go in, you want to have a strong reinforcer at the end, so if the child likes to go to the playground or likes to access some special food, then that would be paired always with going to the barbershop.

So, just in general, we want to, for dangerous situations, we want to always consult with a BCBA.

In summary, we want to write down the tasks of whatever situation we are in, the steps of the haircut. We want to practice all the steps, particularly the hard steps, at home, and we want to pick a child-friendly place and a seasoned barber, then we would make an appointment. We don’t want to make appointments during busy times, like a Saturday morning is not the time you want to take a child in that has problems with haircuts. There’s too much going on in those times, so you want to make an appointment with a seasoned barber, and sometimes, some kids even need to go visit the barber on a daily or weekly basis, and not even get their hair cut. Just go in and practice the first three steps, and then go home and access reinforcement to work your way up.

So, these are just some ideas that you can use to try to improve autism haircuts for your child or client.

To get started turning things around for your child or clients with autism, you also may want to download my free, three-step guide, which covers three steps you can take today to help your child or client with autism. So whether you’re a novice parent or a seasoned autism professional, I know you’ll find some helpful new tools and advice in this guide. I’d love it if you would leave me a comment, like this video, or share it and help others who might be struggling through autism haircuts, and I will see you here next week.

Ready to learn more and turn things around for your child or client with autism? Sign up for my free 3-step guide!