Systematic Desensitization Rebroadcast: Helping Kids Who Struggle with Haircuts, Doctors and Dentist Visits

Whether it is a haircut, routine dentist visits, ear check, learning to tolerate eye drops, or wearing a safety vest, these common and necessary activities can trigger panic and problem behavior in children with autism. Holding down your child or client to carry out these tasks is not recommended and is not sustainable long term. In this segment of my classic rebroadcast series, I share an episode from 2019 where I discuss and share tips on how to help kids who struggle with these important tasks for self-care, medical needs, and safety using systematic desensitization.

Step 1: Assess – What Does Desensitize Mean?

If you’re not new here, you know the first step is always to assess. Identify the task at hand and ask questions about what’s happening. Where is this taking place? What behavior occurs? What triggers the behavior? How long does the behavior last? Who is involved? Break down every level of the task or procedure and figure out what happens and what needs to happen.

Step 2: Plan – Desensitization and Medical procedures 

Use your answers from assessing the task to build a very detailed step-by-step plan. Determine where the child will be, in what position, with whom, for how long, etc. Every single necessary piece must be included so your child and you can know what to expect.

Step 3. Practice – Helping a Child with Medical Procedures 

Start small and build up. Practicing the plan is going to gradually desensitize the child. You should not practice the entire plan and procedure at once. First start by going to the predetermined location of the practice, and providing reinforcement. Then introduce the next step, providing reinforcement. Then the next step and so on. Eventually, this will lead up to the actual procedure whether that be a haircut, appointment, ear drops, etc. Some tasks or procedures are more time sensitive so adjust your gradual practice to fit the time constraints, especially in the case of administering medicine. 

Overall we want children to reach their fullest potential and have a great life, this means participating in and tolerating these, at times, uncomfortable daily tasks. Hopefully, these tips can make a difference in desensitizing these procedures in a way that will benefit them as they grow older and encounter additional important tasks. As always if you find these episodes helpful, find us on all of our social media platforms and give us a like, comment, and share so we can keep getting the word out.

Systematic Desensitization Rebroadcast: Helping Kids Who Struggle with Haircuts, Doctors and Dentist Visits


  • What does Desensitize mean?
  • Desensitization and Medical procedures.
  • How to help a child with medical procedures.
  • How to assess, plan, and practice desensitization.
  • How to prevent problem behavior during important care tasks, safety, and medical procedures.
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Mary Barbera – Turn Autism Around Podcast Transcript

Transcript for Podcast Episode: 195
Systematic Desensitization Rebroadcast: Helping Kids Who Struggle with Haircuts, Doctors and Dentist Visits
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera

Mary: You're listening to the Turn Autism Around Podcast Episode Number 195. Before I tell you the topic for today, I wanted to make an exciting announcement. Both of my books The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders as well as Turn Autism Around: An Action Guide for Parents of Young Children with Early Signs of Autism are now available in Spanish. This has been a long time coming for the verbal behavior approach. This is, I think, the 17th translation. Finally in Spanish. You can get that at and this is the very first translation of any in any language for Turn Autism Around and you can find out more details on purchase turn autism around in Spanish at Okay. So let's get to this episode. It is a classic rebroadcast of Desensitization. It's a podcast that was created years ago, a couple of years ago, I think in 2019. And we are replaying it and this covers how to get kids going to the doctors, dentists, haircuts, how to desensitize anything. You know, if suddenly the child doesn't like Mr. Potato Head or refuses to brush his teeth, what do you do? And of course, all of my procedures are preventive and positive. And I wanted to bring this back, both as a registered nurse and a behavior analyst, as well as a mom to a son with autism. I know how difficult these situations are, and I feel like I have some good procedures in place to help you. So let's get to an episode all about desensitization.

Narrator: Welcome to the Turn Autism Around podcast for both parents and professionals in the autism world who want to turn things around, be less stressed, and lead happier lives. And now your host, autism mom, behavior analyst and bestselling author Dr. Mary Barbera.

Common Struggles

Mary: Hi. Welcome back to another episode of the Turn Autism Around Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Mary Barbera, and it's great to have you listening. We've been at the podcast for several months now and I'm so excited that we're still going strong. I've done a lot of interviews in the past few weeks, so I wanted to slip in a solo show to give you some information about how we, as parents and professionals in the autism world, start to make doctor's visits, dentists, haircuts, getting your child's picture taken, wearing smocks at preschool for painting, wearing life vests by pools, tolerating things that the doctor might recommend, like eye drops or nose sprays. These often can cause major issues in kids with autism. And when kids are small, whether they have a diagnosis of autism or not, that the general procedure is usually, which I'm not recommending, is usually hold the child down and do the procedure. But in a lot of kids with autism, it backfires because kids feel like they're being, you know, attacked and held down and they can often fight back. And as the child gets older, they become stronger and stronger. And pretty soon, you know, four people holding down to get their ears checked is just not even feasible, even with four people. And so as both a registered nurse and a behavior analyst, I often see teens really struggle with how to follow through with any kind of medical procedures. And so I have developed some procedures within my online courses that can help people. I've promoted free information. I do have video blogs on how to get kids to tolerate their haircuts better. I have a video blog about going to the dentist where I show a short video of my son Lucas and us practicing at home. So you may want to check out those video blogs. This is a little bit challenging during a podcast about something that is so visual, but I think it's such an issue with kids with autism that I really wanted to try to cover it in the podcast. Even if I have to do follow up videos or point you in the direction of some of my free videos. Now before we get really into the nitty gritty, I do want to say that even though I'm a behavior analyst and a registered nurse and a mom and a bestselling author, I am using podcasts and video blogs for information purposes only. This is not behavioral advice. This is not medical advice. I am only giving you general information. You really need an on site behavior analyst who can analyze your child, or even a distance consultant who can look at videos and really make a plan and help you, especially if you have an older child, a bigger child that could really cause injury. But don't be too confident if your child is still small enough to hold down because holding children down is never a good idea because like I said, it'll just usually backfire with kids with autism. And it'll, you know, if you hold them down for a haircut or you hold them down for an ear check, then all of a sudden when you go to get your family picture taken or try to get them to wear a vest and they don't want to wear it, all of a sudden it becomes more and more of a struggle.

Assess, Plan, Practice:

Mary: So whether we're looking at an ear check at the doctor's or eye drops or wearing a life vest, we always have to start at the beginning, which is always assessment. I hope you're like saying it out loud with me, because if you read any of my video blogs and listen to any of my podcasts, you will know that the first step is always assessment. We have to step back and we have to look at exactly what's happening. So we need to figure out, okay, what the procedure is that the child is currently not tolerating or maybe maybe they've never even been to the dentist. So you don't know how they're going to tolerate it. Anything that you can prepare, prevent and plan for, you're going to be in a lot better shape than stepping back and, you know, going through the procedure and then having it be a mess. And then now we've got to try to pair it up. So we want to get baseline data if we can. Just say you're a professional and you're called in to talk to the parent whose child has been to the dentist three times. And it's always been a problem and they're getting ready to prepare for the dentist. Okay. So you're going to have to rely on the interview. Probably to begin to gather like what happened those last three visits, because you're not going to have the luxury to view them. They're most likely not videotaped. And you're just going to have to kind of use that experience to plan. You'd want to interview the person that accompanied the child with this trip, or maybe they've never been to the dentist, but they cause a fuss at the doctor. So you're going to anticipate that that might carry over and you're really going to look at the steps, write down the steps, like the child freaks out when they arrive at the doctor's office or when they're fine, when they arrive, when they get called back, when they do the weight and the height, everything's fine until the ear check. So then it's isolated really to the ear check or or, you know, whatever the situation is, maybe it's eye drops and now all of a sudden the child needs eye drops for some reason. And it's a new procedure. The child is resisting. And now you have to help the parent try to figure out how to follow the doctor's order to make that happen. So this involves interviewing, writing down the steps that are involved, coming up with if there are certain steps that are more problematic than others. And then you should set a goal with the parent to enter the room without, you know, any problem behaviors or to tolerate maybe all the other parts of the doctor's visit except for the ear check. Or maybe they would just go to the dentist and the dentist would just brush their teeth and count their teeth, and then they would be given some kind of reinforcement. So let's think about a sample goal for wearing a life vest. So the goal might be where the child will wear a life vest before going in the water at the pool or they say it's an eye drop procedure. The goal might be that the child will tolerate three eye drops in each eye two times a day without problem behavior. Maybe you're trying to set a goal for haircuts. Johnny will sit in a seat alone and get his haircut without crying. Now, these seem like they're really pretty hard, right? So we're going to have to and for complex skills, we're going to have to like eye drops. It's not just a matter of tolerating an eye drop. Like, what is that going to look like? How are we going to practice? How are we going to make sure that the variables don't change too much for complex skills? We're going to need to write down the actual steps of where they're going to lay their eye drops and how this is going to take place. So we need to determine where we're going to practice. So are we going to practice wearing a smock for painting at preschool? Are we going to practice in the therapy room, at school or at home for eye drops? Where's the location? We're going to practice? Okay. The child will lay on a beanbag in the living room for the eye drops. Where are we going to practice haircuts? The child will sit in a chair in the kitchen to practice haircuts. And then after we practice haircuts, then we will begin to move that practice to a child friendly barber for simple skills like tolerating wearing a swim vest or a smock. We may only need a data sheet to track the duration that the child tolerated and the reinforcement that was given. But like I said, for these more complex tasks, we're going to have to really write down the steps and work on the child. As I said, I did do a video blog about going to the dentist, and I showed a video of my son, Lucas, where we practice. I bought a little dental kit. You can actually buy these, like fake, fake little mirrors that goes in your mouth and fake instruments to take the plaque off at the dollar store or on Amazon online. So I got this little kit and to practice and he sat in the recliner in the living room and then I was able to say, We're going to practice going to the dentist, sit in the chair, tilted the chair back then put a tea towel over him to mimic the bib that would be on him. Then use the mirror and the pic to count his teeth to pair up to somebody in his mouth. And that was an example where we paired that up. But even for some kids, they're going to need this kind of procedure or even to, like, cut their fingernails or their toenails. And I know I'm guilty of this. So if anybody's out there listening and thinking, oh, my gosh, I do that, you know, when kids are little to avoid the freak out, you know, I'd cut Lucas's fingernails and his toenails. And I know some people even cut kids' hair in their sleep. This is just another way to avoid the situation. And the child doesn't get to participate in pairing up aversive interventions. So I don't recommend that you do things to a child when they're sleeping. I instead recommend that you assess and come up with a plan to systematically desensitize the child to all kinds of aversive events. So in addition to figuring out the location you're going to practice, we're also going to need to determine the people that are going to be involved. And I know I interviewed a former client's mom, Jenna, recently, and I know when I worked at her house years ago with her then two year old son, Cody, he was very averse to taking a bath. So that location is the bathtub in the main bathroom where that's the only bathtub they used. But what she was doing that we changed was in order for Jenna's husband to give Jenna a break. Cody's father and Cody's mother were both taking terms, and it was just a battle every time they tried to give them a bath. The problem with the father doing it was that I wasn't able to train the father because he was at work. So. Jenna and I decided that in order to have Cody have the best chance of success, we would actually have Jenna be the only person to give Cody a bath for a couple of weeks or a couple of months until we got the bathtub desensitized because that was, you know, that was a problem in that he's thrashing about. He could bang his head. He could slip and fall. And we didn't want it to be an all out struggle. So determine their location, determine the steps, determine the person or people involved. If you're in a school setting and you're trying to practice any kind of haircuts or doctors, your dentist, the less people involved, the better, because there will be shaping involved. And a lot of it is part science, part art and part like dancing with somebody that you have to kind of feel when you need to prompt or reinforce. And while you'll take data on the prompt level and everything, it's just a lot easier the less people that you have to train to be very precise. So for the child that all of a sudden needed to tolerate eye drops, when I got there, the mom said, you know, the child is really fussing and it's really important that he gets these eye drops for whatever reason. And so we were able to then identify the beanbag should be put in this location on the floor. The child can watch TV. From that vantage point, the mom should kneel on the right side of the beanbag chair. The mom would spread the upper and lower eyelid with her index finger and her thumb, and then the child would look behind him, actually kind of roll his eyes up in his head so that he wouldn't see the hand or the eye drops. And this particular child had enough language ability, cognitive ability to follow those instructions. And then mom would put three drops as she counts 1 to 3. And then the mom would give praise and additional reinforcement and would repeat the process with the other eye. Again, give reinforcement. So we went from the child freaking out with eye drops to a procedure with structure, a procedure that the child could follow. I know plenty of adults, including myself, can't really and eagerly tolerate eye drops. So we, you know, worked with the individual. These are all very, you know, very individualized for my client at the time. And have another child that would have to have eye drops. It would probably be a whole different procedure, especially if the child doesn't understand, like look behind you and basically roll your eyes so you can't see. So each procedure needs to be individualized, but it's so important that we help parents breakdown skills and help children slowly desensitize to tolerate these community outings, these medical procedures and procedures that are either at the doctor's office or recommended by doctors. I do recommend that when we're trying to do these task analysis, this breakdown of the steps that I usually use, what we call forward training, where I'm starting at the beginning and continuing and I might only do one of the steps at a time like I might practice. Okay, Tommy, let's lay in the beanbag chair. Okay. And now you're going to watch TV, and now I'm just going to separate your eyelids, you know? And I'm not doing the rest of the steps. Okay, great. Now I'm going to reinforce it. Okay, now. Now I'm going to do it, you know, and I'm going to have you practice rolling your eyes up so you can't see it. Okay. And I'll do that. Those two steps on both eyes. You see what I'm saying? And so reinforce those. Step one. Step two. Okay, great. We're going to practice, practice, practice. And then we'll be able to do the medical procedure. Now, obviously, with a medical procedure, you don't want to wait days and days and weeks to desensitize, so you're going to have to do it as quickly as possible. What I'm saying is everything is possible. You just need a system to plan and practice in the same location. The same person or people to get the best results for haircuts. And I talk about this in the video blog. If you want to break down the steps into you know, you might want to practice at home in the same setting wearing the cape, for instance, spritzing water. One of the things that Lucas used to not really tolerate well was spraying water from a bottle onto his hair. And one of my friends who's a hairdresser and also she's a mom to a son with autism as well. She's one of my very best autism friends. She told me that kids don't tolerate the spray water because it's sitting at room temperature, which is like 72 degrees. Meanwhile, our body temperatures are 98.6 degrees. And so that spray is, in essence, very cold water compared to our body temperature. So one of the interventions for Lucas when he went to the barbershop was we would actually put warm water, almost hot water in the bottle, because by the time we sprayed it, it would get to roughly room temperature. And then it wasn't the startle experience of having cold water sprayed on his head. So we want to practice all of these procedures and then if we can find a great family friendly barber shop, then we can even take our little fake scissors and our fake clippers and we can take that stuff to the barber shop. Maybe we don't even make an appointment. Maybe we're just practicing the steps before we actually have the barber work on the actual child. So for vests or smocks, I have found that we want to just increase the time that the child is tolerating that while the child's wearing the swim vest or the smock for painting at preschool. They are engaging in very reinforcing activities. They're not painting necessarily or they are not by the pool because we're going to want to practice these away from those actual environments to really get a lot of practice under our belt.

Desensitization Procedure Overview

Mary: Any procedure, whether it's an ear check at the doctors, the eye drops, the vest, the go into a pool. We want to do an assessment. We want to have a plan. We want to select a goal. We want to do practice trials. And if you have a behavior analyst or someone that understands the principles of ABA, that can help you make a data sheet to take data on it, that would be the best situation. And then once we get the practice trials going and the child tolerates all the steps, then we want to take that procedure and generalize it to a real setting, to a real dentist or a real barber, to a real doctor or to the pool. There is a great book called Further Case Studies of ABA with People with Autism. Chapter 15 is by Randy Horowitz it's an older book. I saw Randy Horowitz present years ago. It's probably 2000 or 2001 on doctors, dentists and haircuts, and it was a great presentation. So I have adapted some of her advice I learned way back when, and I think because of my nursing background and my ability to help families and share some videos, I've been able to develop the procedures that she first gave me a lot of great ideas about, so I would definitely take a look at that book. And for further information, you can check out my free online workshops at Marie Barbera dot com for a slash workshop. If you liked listening to this podcast, I would love it if you would go to iTunes and leave me a review and a comment and spread the word because I want to Turn Autism Around for 2 million by 2020 and lots more millions after that. So I am happy that you are listening and hopefully you have found this information really helpful. So let's really help our kids, whether they're your own child or your clients, to tolerate these procedures, to reach their fullest potential, to have a great life. And we want to really help parents and providers also be less stressed. And I think coming up with procedures to help kids tolerate all kinds of potentially aversive situations can really help our stress level reduce as well. So thanks so much for listening and I hope you tune in next week.

Mary: If you're a parent or an autism professional and enjoy listening to this podcast, you have to come check out my online course and community where we take all of this material and we apply it. You'll learn life changing strategies to get your child or clients to reach their fullest potential. Join me for a free online workshop at where you can learn how to avoid common mistakes. You can see videos of me working with kids with and without autism, and you can learn more about joining my online course and community at a very special discount. Once again, go to for all the details. I hope to see you there.